On September 15th last year, I officially arrived as a Peace Corps trainee in Macedonia. The time has passed so quickly, that I am beginning to realize with growing trepidation that I will find myself sitting in front of my computer typing the words “Saying Farewell” in very little time at all.
In looking back over the past year, I am beginning to realize how far I have (and have not) come from the version of me that stepped off the plane last fall. More than anything, the multitude of experiences – good and bad – have refined my values, ideals, and boundaries – perhaps because the experience has tested all of these areas.
Over a cup of coffee with one of my language teachers, he jokingly remarked “You came to change Macedonia, and we changed you!” I laughed – isn’t it true that as Peace Corps volunteers, we arrive with the hope to help the citizens of the country in which we serve to make a positive impact in their communities? We (or at least, I) could not anticipate all of the changes that would occur internally in order to be able to do this work – to integrate with a foreign community and culture, to overcome adversity, to admit weakness, to create strength (or even just the illusion of it), to step outside one’s comfort zone.
Some of these changes occur unwittingly, such as when I catch myself staring in true dibranche fashion – aka, like a local – at someone that I do not know walking down the street (I completely understand why I was stared at when I arrived in town – I was an unknown face, a rare occurrence in a town of 8,000 people); while others I made by choice or through experience. Some changes I adamantly decided not to make, which taught me about my own character.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, you become what you are needed to be and what you are willing to be. None of us came perfectly pre-packaged to fulfill the expectations of our communities or our organizations. When I had spoken with RPCVs in the U.S. as I prepared for my departure, they all universally said that it was in their second year that they felt as though they “hit their stride.” In other words, they understand what needed to be done, what they wanted to do, and they had a the knowledge and resources (hopefully) to do the work that they had joined the Peace Corps to do.
Unlike the squirm-inducing hilarity of the Griswalds European Vacation, my European vacation was like an amazing dream. Fate manifested a sign of things to come in the form of not one but two “good luck” bird dropping incidents on the date of my departure, August 9th. Lucky me! Seriously.
I shall have to plant myself under heavily bird-trafficked areas in the future, if I owe the loveliness of my vacation to these two “gifts.” I will not go into too much detail, except to say that I had a wonderful time with three of my best friends in some pretty awesome places – Budapest – where we danced with a caveman to the Bloody Beetroots, a show which did, as our new French acquaintances promised, “rip our faces off”; bathed in the largest medicinal bath in Europe (and got our mint sauna on); and joined the other young tourists to explore the city’s ruin bars – Vienna – where we walked off our significant sacher tort, coffee, dumpling and beer intake while enjoying the beautiful architecture and history of Austria’s capital – and, Prague – a city filled with interesting, ancient urban legends of a golem, a pagan fire that could not be extinguished, a princess prophet, statues coming life to catch those seeking to steal from the church (I am kicking myself for not buying a book highlighting these, plus 74 other fascinating tales, at the Strahov Monastery); and a city that is also home to the beautiful astronomical clock and is the capital of a country with one of the largest atheist populations in Europe (and perhaps the world, depending on your source).
These are three amazing cities, and I do them a disservice with my short descriptions. I hope that you will have the opportunity to visit them yourself, or that you have already had the chance to do so.
I also visited Italy to attend the wedding of my friend, Bridie, to her Italian fiancee (now husband), Francesco. They are a lovely couple, and the wedding could not have been more beautiful. I was fortunate to have chosen, rather randomly *ok, actually because the hotel was a bit cheaper than others and I have a small budget* to stay in Certaldo Alto, which is the ancient part of the city. It was well worth the extra walk or funicular ride, for the amazing view and ambiance. The ceremony was held in a church dating from the 12th century (imagine how many people have been married in it!) in the Tuscan countryside. The officiating priest was excellent and warm, and managed to maintain a perfect balance of seriousness with humor for the ceremony. I also loved the sprinkling of references to philosophy and Bruce Springsteen he added to his comments. I also had the opportunity to spend time with some of Bridie’s co-workers (old and new) and friends from Northside Social, one of my favorite coffee shops, which is also home / place of work for some very awesome people.
I also ran around Rome a bit on my own, picking up new friends as I went, and also getting my first Dottor Fish pedicure. Wow. What an amazing trip.