It started snowing on Friday, which resulted in the transformation of my town into a sugar frosted, confectionified version of itself. I was happy as I love the snow – how it creates a cushion of silence against the ordinary grinding noises of the world, and, how it sparkles in the sunlight. However, by Sunday, the snow had become sleet. While walking to my friend’s house, a Christmas present tucked into the bag hanging in my left hand, cars drove by sending slush splashing around me and the wind threw rainy slush flakes at my body and fought to tear the umbrella right out of my hand. Next thing I knew, my weakling Christmas bag literally bottomed out, spewing candy right and left and sending the very breakable glass cup it contained to it meet its sad end on the concrete. Oh weather, how fickle you are. The electricity also happened to go out later that evening, leaving us without power for around 15 or 16 hours. However, the weather today was more than enough of an apology to make up for yesterday’s minor catastrophes.
A note of clarification – this post is based on my observances living in a small village and later, a small town, in Macedonia (it is also reflective of my culture and experiences as an American). I have had more exposure to Albanian culture in Macedonia than Macedonian culture, and my observations reflect that. I wanted to use this post to share some of what I have learned about relationships in my community with my readers.
Family Life and Friendships
As you have probably gathered from my other posts, family life in Macedonia (both in Albanian and Macedonian cultures) is significantly different than family life in the states, especially in the smaller towns and villages. In my Macedonian host family, the family unit was comprised of my host grandmother and host grandfather on the first floor, with their son, his wife, and their son living on the second floor. In most families, it is typical for children to live with their parents until they marry. Upon marriage, daughters will move into their husband’s household. Sons will usually remain in the home they were raised in, to be joined by their bride upon marriage. Lest you think that Macedonians and Albanians have a magic method for harmonious relationships between mother-in-laws and their daughter-in-laws, there are plenty of local jokes about these relationships. In Albanian, a common name for women is Shpresa, which translates to “hope”. In a clever play on words, Albanians will tell the joke…”I hope that your mother-in-law is not named Shpresa.” When the hapless bride responds, “Why?”. The clever jokester will reply “Because hope (Shpresa) dies last.”
I have found that there is much greater emphasis on family life in Macedonia (and perhaps this extends to the Balkan region in general) compared to America. Important decisions – even those that are at an individual level – are a familial activity. A person’s social life revolves around their family, which is generally warm and close. When I held a discussion on friendship with the local GLOW Club (Girls Leading Our World), I was surprised to hear unanimously from every girl that she did not trust her friends – it was only her family that she trusted. As a single, relatively young American female living in a family-centered, collectivistic culture – it has been a bit of an adjustment. I moved around quite a bit while living in America and depended heavily upon the openness of others to invite me into their lives and to develop friendships. I consider my closest friends to be like family. I learned, slowly, that my friendships developed in Macedonia, would not be the same as those that I have in America. Once, I accepted this, I was able to embrace the support that these friendships offered.
Relationships and Dating
One of the questions that my volunteer group raised during our training was about dating…what is dating like in Macedonia? Our cross-cultural trainers looked a bit like deer caught in the headlights. One responded that it remained a mystery to him even after being in the country for two years. I can’t say that I am any more knowledgeable than my our cultural trainers. Within my community, dating appears to be a covert activity. Most of my local friends who are in relationships are engaged. They first got to know their fiance via Facebook – sending messages back and forth. Then, there is usually a short period of covert dating.
Open dating is not the norm in my community – once you are seen with a member of the opposite sex that is not a member of your family or a coworker, it is assumed that you are engaged. Thus the need to have secrecy when dating. For women, it is frowned upon to have had multiple boyfriends. For men, most people will not bat an eyelash if he has had multiple girlfriends, showing that the same double standard that pervades many cultures and societies also exists here. In some families, if a daughter is found to have a secret boyfriend, she will be beaten.
After a period of Facebook messaging and covert dating, the couple will decide to become engaged. Once a couple is engaged, they can go out together publicly, and are able stay over at one-another houses, etc. Engagements will usually last for a year or two, and are celebrated with a lot of family, music and dancing. It is not unusual for couples to become engaged in high-school. This explains many of the open-mouthed stares that I receive when I respond to questions about my age and (non)marital status. In my community, it is considered one of the highest callings in life to create a family and children.
Divorce is rare and generally looked upon with disapproval. In many situations divorce is an economic and familial disaster, in a culture where women do not usually work outside the home, it means moving back into her family’s home, facing the judgement of the community, as well as the likelihood that she will lose custody of her children. It is also rare for an individual to remain unmarried during their lifetime. Culturally, it is considered more than a little strange to be by yourself or to spend time alone. So, I may appear a little strange at times ; )
A few more notes of clarification – when I refer to dating, I am referring to heterosexual relationships. Other relationships are negatively perceived by the vast majority of the population – both in my community and in Macedonia overall.