My sitemate (in non-PC lingo, the other volunteer who lives in my town) was kind enough to lend me an illustrated book about the experience of a UC Berkley Peace and Conflict Studies student in Macedonia. The student, Heather, traveled to Macedonia to research how the country managed to peacefully separate from Yugoslavia. Her experiences mirror many of my own, and it is an interesting read for anyone looking to learn more about the country – its people, history, politics, ethnic relations and the infamous “Balkan Mentality.”
It’s winter again.
This past week we had our In-Service Training, which was also was the first official Peace Corps event where all volunteers were gathered together since everyone departed for their individual sites in December. It was great to catch up, especially with those volunteers that I had not seen since November. After facing a number of struggles at my site, it felt like a homecoming and I fought back tears at one moment when greeting one of my friends, Jim. While I have a great support network of Macedonian and Albanian friends at my site, there is a special connection shared by all volunteers due to the nature of our shared experience. We are all working to establish ourselves in new living and working environments, struggling to master the local languages, to familiarize ourselves with the religions, customs and cultures of our new friends, co-workers and the communities that we serve. There is a reason that the Peace Corps says that being a volunteer will be “the toughest job that you will ever love.”
After working our way through sessions focused on strategic planning, project design and management, and mental health, we took the opportunity to visit with one another and to enjoy our time in Skopje.
One night, a group of us traveled to Shuto Orizari, the only Romani majority municipality in Europe, for International Romani Day. Two Peace Corps volunteers live and work in Shuto Orizari – one of the volunteers served as our guide, hosting us at her house for a snack before heading to the party taking place a few minutes away. We stopped for additional nourishment in the form of doner (Shuto Orizari has extremely delicious and inexpensive doner) before fighting our way through the crowd to get to the main stage area. The crowd was dense, and we were temporarily crushed against strangers and helplessly followed the flood of people into the concert area. I (being the cautious sort) silently prayed that no incidents occurred to incite panic in the crowd. We eventually broke through and were rewarded with some of the best music I have heard in Macedonia. At one point a group of five to six year old girls spontaneously embraced my friend and I, and pulled us into their dance circle.
Shuto Orizari is a completely different world compared to the other parts of Macedonia that I have seen. At first, I felt a little nervous after a few teenage boys leered at us – we were walking in a group of guys and girls – and at one point, a kid threw a rock at us while we were relaxing at the balcony of our friend’s house. However, my caution quickly dissipated as we were treated very kindly by the doner shop owners, greeted by friends of our friend, and generally welcomed by the people surrounding us at the celebration. Roma people are negatively stereotyped throughout Europe – it my hope that events such as the International Romani Day, and the work of the many individuals and organizations dedicated to promoting Roma rights, will help to put an end to this cycle of prejudice and injustice. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to visit Shuto Orizari on such an important and celebratory occasion.
This past week also marked my 28th birthday. When I was a child, I envisioned that I would truly be an adult by 28 – it seemed so far away and surrounded by all those things that I lacked – independence, a job, a car, money, and responsibilities. I thought that I would likely be married and possibly have children of my own. I have picked up many of the semblances of my imagined adulthood over the years – jobs, bills, brief car ownership, independence, but most of my life looks nothing like what I imagined that it would when I was a child. In reality, my life may never look the way I imagined that it would. As I grew up, my values evolved and I began to realize that the things that I associated with adulthood were superficial milestones that exist to help remind adults that they are adults (at least that is what I tell myself). Afterall, as Calvin and Hobbes so aptly captured, life doesn’t magically make sense as you age, you just become more familiar with existing in a state of confusion and better at pretending that you aren’t confused.
I did have a really wonderful birthday thanks to my fantastic fellow volunteers – it included delicious Indian food, live music and beer. What more could I have asked for? Love you guys!