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.
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.