Sisterhood: Part 2

Two months remain in my service – whew!  Where did they go?  Making ajvar, traveling the winding road between the capital and my town, catching up with colleagues over coffee, hiking the Macedonian mountains, teaching English, leading a girls leadership club, avoiding bathrooms (!), determining polite ways to refuse eating more food than would be prudent, practicing speaking Macedonian and Albanian, being invited by random babas for tea and conversation….the list goes on and on. However, most prominent in my memories will be the Albanians and Macedonians who welcomed me into their lives with open arms and doors.

With the next few posts, I wanted to profile some of the women (and men) in Macedonia who offered me their friendship and cared for me as a sister (or daughter, in some cases!).  For my first post, I happy to introduce you to my dear friend Zana.

Tea and Coffee after Iftar

Tea and Coffee after Iftar with Zana and Family

I met Zana my very first day working at the municipality.  She seemed determined to take me under her wing (or perhaps I just looked thoroughly lost and confused and in need of a mother figure), despite the fact that I could barely understand Albanian and she did not know any English.  She did try speaking French and Macedonian with me, and at this point I knew more Macedonian than Albanian, so we managed some very basic communications.  Our conversations went something like this:

Zana: “A je e gati per kafe?” (Are you ready for coffee?)

Me: “Uh, po, faleminderit” (I did not understand any of the words except coffee, and decided that it was safe to say “yes” and “thank you” to something about coffee).

Zana: “Mire, hajde te shkojme ne lart.” (Good, let’s go upstairs)

Me: “Ok, faleminderit” (No idea what I was saying “ok” to – incidentally, during this period I may have erroneously answered numerous questions about America and my marital status – marital or dating status questions are popular to ask when meeting someone)

My Albanian began to improve over time, and as it did, I gradually learned more about Zana.  Zana was widowed at a young age, and lives with her sister and nephew. I also soon came to realize that everyone in town knows Zana.  I could not walk five feet with her downtown without someone – Albanian, Macedonian, or Roma – stopping her to chat.

During my second year of service, I made the decision to move out of the homestay that I had been living in, and to find an apartment.  In my community, it is rare for a woman to live alone, but Zana did not judge my choice and began helping me with my apartment search.  Most apartments in my town are empty during the year, but quickly fill back up in summer with families returning from abroad.  With nowhere to live, I worried that I would have to change sites and start over again in another location.  However, Zana ended up finding an apartment in her building – located just around the corner from my work.  The landlord seemed reluctant to rent to a stranger from America, but with Zana campaigning for me, he buckled.  It is thanks to her that I have lived for the last seven months in a safe, comfortable apartment – with great neighbors, of course.

On move-in day, Zana’s eight year old nephew was delighted to get a new neighbor (I think he thought that I would be more exciting than I actually am), and valiantly helped to lug the various items that I had managed to accumulate during my service up five flights of stairs.  Since then, he usually appears on my doorstep for English homework advice or to watch parts of Spiderman – in his words “filmi me i mire ne bote” (the best film in the world).

When I received news that my father was in the hospital and I was getting ready to fly home, Zana was the first person that I saw.  She had invited me down for caj rusi (Russian Tea), and I went downstairs to tell her that I could not stay for tea. She took one look at me, and soon the news came pouring out.  She and her sister were also the first people that I saw when I returned from staying with my father in America while he underwent multiple surgeries.  I had been back in my community for just a few hours when I heard a knock on the door and found Zana and Ana outside with presents for me for my birthday, checking in to see how I was and whether my father was better.

The above photo was taken one night when Zana invited me to her home for Iftar dinner (the dinner to break the fast during Ramadan).  It is a true honor to be invited to someone’s home for Iftar dinner, and a feast had been laid out by Zana and Ana.  After dinner, it is tradition in my community for everyone to walk through the center of the city and to go to one of the popular late night coffee bars and chat well into the early morning hours until Safir (the last meal before fasting begins again). We followed this tradition and stopped for tea and coffee at one of the most beautiful coffee bars in town, and one of the nuses (brides) in Zana’s family took this photo of us.

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Macedonia in the News

The past few days have seen Macedonia featured in the news regarding the handling a refugees (many of them from Syria) streaming over the border from Greece to access Serbia and, further along, Western Europe.

I have traveled between Greece and Macedonia a few times in the last two years and have noticed an increase in the number of refugees seeking to pass through Macedonia. Prior to Macedonia changing their asylum law (changed in June to allow refugees to legally travel through the country within a period of three days), it was not unusual to see numerous groups of 20-30 men bicycling across Macedonia from Greece in order to reach Serbia. The flow of refugees continues, but plans for how to manage the crisis seem conflicting across Europe. After two days of increased police presence at the border between Macedonia and Greece, the flow of refugees was allowed to continue yesterday.

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34034255

A Detour to Greece

A secret walkway down to a rocky beach

A secret walkway down to a rocky beach

One of the benefits of serving in the Peace Corps is being able to explore places that you might otherwise never have had the opportunity to visit. Prior to moving to Macedonia, the extent of my international travels included a trip to Vancouver, BC and a short study abroad experience in Florence, Italy.  Due to Macedonia’s location, it is (relatively) easy to travel to neighboring countries over the weekend.  This still boggles my mind.  The ease with which my Washington, DC friends and I would plan weekend camping trips in the Shenandoah or Dolly Sods in WV is the same way that my fellow volunteers and I now plan trips to Albania or Kosovo. Actually, it is perhaps even easier as I am not driving my old car, which constantly threatened to deteriorate or spontaneously combust at the slightest provocation – such as steep hills or winding roads.

Last week, one of my friends and I took a bus from Skopje (the capital of Macedonia) to Thessaloniki, Greece.  From there, we caught another bus to the transfer bus station for Halkidiki, which contains the “three fingers”.  My impression is that the first finger, Kassandra, is known as the “party” finger; the middle finger (ahem), Sithonia, is the quieter one known for its natural beauty; the third finger, Athos, is home to a large monastic community in the southern portion, with some towns sprinkled to the north.  We decided to stay on Sithonia in Neos Marmaras, a quiet, family-friendly town located on the western portion of Sithonia.  It should be noted that we did not realize that we would be staying in an area primarily frequented by families on vacation – nothing against vacationing families, but we did appear as anomalies (twenty-something, single women literally floating in a sea of small children and their parents).  I was also struck by the fact that most of the tourists appeared to be from the Balkans – I thought that I heard a good amount of Macedonian and Serbian spoken.

The beautiful sea

The beautiful sea

We were interested in traveling to Mt. Athos to visit the oldest surviving monastic community in the world, one which is a self-governing republic.  After a bit of research, we quickly realized that this would be impossible.  Women are not permitted to visit the monasteries, and there are very strict rules and procedures governing the admittance of male visitors.  For those that are permitted to visit, it seems that they are granted a window into a world that is tied to traditions and an ascetic lifestyle that lie beyond the reach (and perhaps comprehension) of those of us who live in the modern world.

On the beach

On the beach

We enjoyed four days of lazy mornings, days spent on the beach and swimming in the sea (yes, the water is that crystal clear), and evenings spent strolling through town and partaking in delicious Greek food and wine.  We came across retsina wine – I will be honest and say that I did not like it the first time that I tried it. However, after learning from one of our waiters the unique ingredient that contributes to the wine’s flavor (retsina is a white wine made with pine resin), I found myself appreciating the wine more.

As we spent most of our time at the beach, unplugged from the rest of the world, we would not have known about the many momentous events occurring around the world had I not idly turned on the TV one day.  We learned that the U.S. Supreme Court had legalized gay marriage, and also learned of the terrorist attack in Tunisia – an attack that took place at a beach that looked very similar to the one that we were visiting.  It was a surreal combination of news, one an example of a tremendous step forward in recognizing the human right to formalize an expression of love – the other demonstrating a calculated and intentional extinguishment of innocent human life. It did not escape me that only geography separated us from those who were attacked in Tunisia, and it felt strange to be following a pattern that the victims of the attack had likely expected to follow – to relax on the beach, to go for an evening stroll, to enjoy a meal with friends or family.  My heart goes out to the victims,their families and friends.

On Saturday, the day that we left Greece, we saw long lines trailing outside of every ATM. Unintentionally, we happened to visit Greece immediately prior to the expiration of the bailout program that the country has been relying on.  Upon doing a bit of research, I realized that many Greeks were attempting to withdraw as much funds as possible prior to limits being placed upon the amount of withdrawals (as of Sunday, ATM withdrawals were limited to 60 euro a day).  The prime minister of Greece is currently in tense discussions with the European Central Bank, and Macedonia has asked its banks to pull money out of Greece.

American Prom!

After much hard work, worrisome moments, and spurts of good luck, the drama that I worked on alongside my Macedonian tutor was performed!  The drama, American Prom, was inspired by teen movies of the 80s and 90s – Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, She’s All That, Ten Things I Hate About You, etc. This project would not have been possible without the help of numerous individuals – the high school psychologist who believed in our idea from the beginning, the manager of the theater at the House of Culture who always picked up his phone and responded to my requests (and was able to derive meaning from my ashtu-ashtu Albanian), my coworker at the Municipality who built the background for our prom scene, along with numerous others.

Of course, the real stars of the drama were the students. Twelve actors from the high school were featured in the drama, all performing in English – their third language.  Nerves were running high in the moments leading up to the performance – we were missing a performer, a wardrobe malfunction necessitated a change in dress, and students were anxiously peeking out to the audience to see if their family and friends had arrived.  Crises were miraculously averted, and the students carried off the performance smoothly.  The hours and weekends spent rehearsing showed in how well the students knew their lines and the changing of the scenography.  I am so proud of them.

I am eagerly waiting for the news channel who filmed the performance to provide a recording of the drama.  In the meantime, here is a link to my (surprise/impromptu) interview by one of the local news agencies and photos from the big day.

Interview for American Prom (fast forward to minute 5:30)

Prom Night Disaster!

Prom Night Disaster!

Photo 5

In class…making trouble

Photo 2

Dancing at the party

Photo 6

Disaster averted

Photo 4

A happy ending after all!

A Day Trip

As I sit at my desk, trying to manage the latest of many bumps in the road as I attempt to bring the youth drama that I have been working on for the past five months to the stage (I keep repeating the old adage “nothing worth doing is easy” to myself), my mind wandered back to a day trip that I took this past weekend.  A family that I am friends with invited me and another volunteer to take a road trip with them to Sveti Naum in Macedonia and two cities in Albania.  I am sharing a few photos from our adventures below:

Sveti Naum

A view inside the courtyard of the monastery at Sveti Naum.

A Sveti Naum selfie!

A Sveti Naum selfie!

A view of the monastery roof and sky.

A view of the monastery roof and sky.

Crystal clear lake water - I can't wait until it is warm enough to go swimming!

Crystal clear lake water – I can’t wait until it is warm enough to go swimming!

This little cafe is perched right on the lake (Albanian side).  What a view!

This little cafe is perched right on the lake in Pogradec (Albanian side). What a view!

This house is where the Albanian film

This house is where the Albanian film “Zonja nga Qyteti” (the woman from the city) was filmed. There is a statue of the protagonist of the film located in front of the house (not pictured). It was mobbed by school children on a school trip!

Tushemisht is a quaint village outside of Pogradec in Albania.  The houses are colorful and gardens and intricate gates abound.

Tushemisht is a quaint village outside of Pogradec in Albania. The houses are colorful and gardens and intricate gates abound.

This is a view from the tower located in the center of the Albanian city of Korca.  You can see the Resurrection Cathedral at the end of the tree lined road.

This is a view from the tower located in the center of the Albanian city of Korca. You can see the Resurrection Cathedral at the end of the tree lined road.

This is Resurrection Cathedral (formerly Saint George Cathedral).  Saint George Cathedral was destroyed by communist authorities in the 1960s.  Resurrection Cathedral was built in the 1990s where St. Cathedral once stood.

This is Resurrection Cathedral (formerly Saint George Cathedral). Saint George Cathedral was destroyed by communist authorities in the 1960s. Resurrection Cathedral was built in the 1990s where St. George Cathedral once stood.

This is a notable Albanian language school, located in Korca. It was founded in 1887 and designed to allow Albanians to be educated in their native language and to push back against the Greek and Ottoman influences in the region.

This is a notable Albanian language school, located in Korca. It was founded in 1887 and designed to allow Albanians to be educated in their native language and to push back against the Greek and Ottoman influences in the region.

An example of some beautiful architecture to be found in Korca.

An example of some of the beautiful architecture that can be found in Korca.

There and Back Again

In late April, I received a message from my sister.

“Hi Rach, can you call me?  It’s important.”

Two days and a few phone calls later, I was on a flight back to America.  My father, a healthy and active man, was in the hospital and was fighting what appeared to be a losing battle for his life.  I could not come to terms with the fact that one of the most stable and dependable people in my life was slipping away, and that I was going to have to try to live and function in a world that did not include him. Just a week earlier, we had been discussing his plans to visit me in Macedonia – his first trip abroad.

The next two weeks passed in a surreal blur, broken up by alternating waves of emotions. Hope and despair followed after each other in a seemingly endless cycle.  As a family, we hung on every word spoken by his nurses and doctors, fear filling our hearts when we would hear the words “I’m sorry.”

I remember holding dad’s hand, hoping that he did not notice the tears that streaked my face.  He still had a firm grip and would squeeze my hand to communicate. He was subjected to long monologues from all of us, which he seemed to tolerate well enough, even when I ran out of topics and babbled on about mundane, silly matters. We became friends with the other families who spent their hours and days in the trauma ward.  In a hospital complex so large that guides were employed, I became a kind of unofficial guide myself, helping others as they attempted to navigate its numerous wards.  My niece and nephew, too young to go to the hospital, kept asking about their grandfather “Pa”, and whether he was better yet.

There were moments of desperate humor, such as when my father spelled “Get me out of here” when we asked him if he needed anything. On the worst night, when the doctors had asked us to leave dad’s room and to prepare ourselves for the fact that he was unlikely to live through the night, I felt as though a giant vise had squeezed all emotion and tears out of me; all that was left was an empty hysteria.  As we settled into the waiting room, my brother Jason suggested that I rest on the couch.  For some reason we thought it necessary to clean the couch first, and used Clorox bleach wipes to wipe it down.  I was about to lie down when I realized that the bleach from the wipes would probably bleach my clothes.  I have no idea how or why I was capable of even thinking of anything so mundane. After days of sorrow and fear, the ridiculousness of this mundane thought struck Jason and me as hilarious and we smiled a little insanely at each other.

Dad made it through that night, and another, and another.  After a number of surgeries and a few days of stable vital signs, dad’s surgeon – a self-declared “realist” – declared that he was realistically optimistic that dad would recover. Perhaps it sounds strange, but my confidence in the surgeon’s words came one day when dad and I watched (well, dad napped a bit) a marathon of Indiana Jones movies – film staples in our family. It felt like a glimmer of normalcy.  With each day that passed, we could see progress.  Fewer and fewer medications hung around dad’s bed.

Eighteen days after I arrived in America, I boarded my flight back to Macedonia. Doubt about my decision hung heavy in my mind – though the doctors assured us that dad was on the road to recovery- he was being moved to another, less intensive floor and he was about to begin working with a physical therapist; I was worried that something would happen.  I had no idea whether I had made the right decision to return to my service.

Thanks to technology (Wifi is abundant in Macedonia).  I can regularly check-in on dad – and even to FaceTime with him.  A week has passed since I left the U.S., but in terms of dad’s recovery, he has made huge strides (literally – he is able to get up and walk with some assistance) forward.  Six months from now, I will return home to America and I am incredibly grateful that I will get to hug my dad, just like I did when I left for this adventure two years ago.

...especially when it comes to food!

We both make a good crazy face for the camera – it’s genetic!

We both make a good crazy face for the photo - it's a genetic talent!

…especially when it comes to food!

Another Day in Macedonia…Oh! Wait, it’s Easter!

Living in foreign country with different cultures and religions, it can sometime be difficult to keep up with one’s traditional holiday calendar, which is how I almost forgot that today is Easter.

Without the commercial buildup found in America, or making plans with family and friends for celebrations, I have become a bit unmoored from my holiday schedule.  Orthodox Easter takes place next Sunday this year, and most members of my community are Muslim and thus do not celebrate Easter.  Today seems like any other Sunday. The shepherds are out and about, regardless of the sleeting rain pouring down on them.  When there was a break in the weather, my neighbors seize the opportunity to air out their bedding.  Little boys race out to buy loves of bread for breakfast for their families.

Sheep and Shepherd

Sheep and Shepherd

Last year, I had traveled to Ohrid to attend the Catholic Easter service.  This year I stayed in my community, and visited with one of the families that I am friends with for tea.  And that was about it.  I called and sent messages to my friends and family, and that was that.  A quiet Easter abroad.