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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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.

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.

Updates!

It’s been a while, I know.  I have been feeling guilty about the lack of updates, which I will finally remedy with this post! Also, for those looking for Part 2 of my post on Sisterhood, it will come – I promise.

The past two months were a bit of a whirlwind (see me trying to justify my absence from the interwebs), during which time I spent a week living outside of my handy backpack at a fellow volunteer’s apartment between homes; my mind was occupied by thoughts of moving, actually moving, and then catching up on life and work after moving.  I am now happily settled into my new home, which I promptly christened by making copious amounts of cookies in my mini “шпорет”/oven.  See below:

Chocolate Chip Cookie and Tea Time

Chocolate Chip Cookie and Tea Time

International Women’s Day (also moving day for me) came and went.  Some of my lovely friends helped me to move everything into my apartment.  After the move, I was invited by one of the families that I am friends with to join them for a celebratory luncheon.

International Women's Day Celebrations

International Women’s Day Celebrations

Things are moving forward with the Youth Theater Club, and our upcoming performance of “American Prom” is quickly approaching.  My friend and co-producer of the play, Lejla, surprised all of us at our latest rehearsal by returning from a visit with her family in Germany unannounced.  We have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us to get all of the scenes memorized and scenery organized, but we have a great group of actors and actresses.

Youth Theater Club!

Youth Theater Club!

This weekend was a blur of activity – I went to a dinner with a co-worker (and dear friend) with some of her friends.  It was a challenge for my Albanian language skills, which fell apart rather quickly when confronted with conversations between three individuals who studied Albanian language and literature in college – literary conversations fall far outside of my linguistic capabilities.  My mind was also woozy from the smoke of four packs of cigarettes that were smoked during the evening.  Coffee and cigarettes will always come to my mind when I think of Macedonia – the two are rather inseparable here.

Literary Minds Meet - One just can't communicate...

Literary Minds Meet – One just can’t communicate…

Tonight, I was invited to my friend, Ljupka’s house for a post-birthday celebratory cake and coffee in honor of her son, Ivan. Ivan had turned three on Friday.  I bought a little red car for him, which evidently earned me a place in his heart, for I was treated to some impromptu dancing and singing performances.  Seeing him made me think of my niece, Avery, and nephew, Jacob, who are about his age.  The topic of conversation somehow turned to school, and I ended up explaining that I was homeschooled until I was nine years old.  Ljupka was very curious about the idea of homeschooling.  She works as a school psychologist, and was surprised at how I developed into such a sociable person after being educated alone at home.  She laughed that Macedonia’s school system is based on the idea that children can only be educated and socialized in school, and commented on how important it is to meet people from other places to learn how other people live their lives.

After being treated to an adorable rendition of Shakira’s “La La La” by Ivan, I realized that it was probably time to go home.  I always have difficulty gauging how long is appropriate to stay as a “гостинка” or guest at my Macedonian and Albanian friends’ homes, but when Ljupka asked me what I was doing next, I decided this might be a subtle sign that it was time to ајде – literally to move or go – after about two hours of visiting.  Maybe I am not as socialized as I thought ; )

In Macedonia, a good host will always walk you to their door or gate (most houses have fences surrounding them).  Ljupka went one step further and walked me down the street before saying goodbye.  It was dark, and I was a ten minute walk from home.  I heard the students protesting in the distance – and I picked up the pace to get home.  I don’t necessarily feel in danger in town – it’s a pretty quiet place, but I also knew that the high school students would likely be worked up after the protest.  As I walked along the road two boys emerged on the corner, walking with exaggerated swaggers, as they passed, one muttered “F*&% you”. They sniggered as they passed.  Too late to confront them, I processed what they said. I didn’t feel personally offended, but rather interpreted it more as a way for them to display their “coolness”, which in their minds evidently equated to cursing in English as the one American in town.

I discovered upon arriving home that the front door to my apartment building was seemingly locked. I tugged on the door and peered into the empty lock hole. I was about to call one of my neighbors, when I heard footsteps in the stairwell.  Whew! I was curious to find out the trick to unlock the door.  To my surprise, the door popped open with ease.  My neighbor kindly laughed at my surprise.  I probably need to begin working out again; my biceps are evidently non-existent. I climbed the stairs, passing by another neighbor.  Not knowing whether he spoke Macedonian or Albanian, I greeted him with both.  He grinned, and pulled off his hat, and I recognized him as a friend of my old host family.  We exchanged greetings and he invited me to join him and his family for coffee another day.  I smiled and thanked him and made my way up the stairs.

As one of my friends told me once in Albanian, “People here are mostly sweet, with a little bit of salt mixed in.”

Sisterhood: Part 1

“Rachael, you have a sister in America, and now you have many sisters here.” These were the words that my co-worker, Zana, told me as we left work together earlier this week.
Her words were so unexpected and kind, that I almost cried.  I am not normally brought to tears – indeed, I tend to be a very discreet person about my emotions, even with my close friends and family.  However, my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer has taken away some of my previously formidable emotional control.  Before this experience, I felt confident in my views of life and my self-concept. This experience has led me to re-examine many of my beliefs and how I view myself and the world around me.  When Socrates stated that “an unexamined life is not worth living”, he neglected to mention that the process of living an examined life can be quite challenging.
Culturally, independence does not appear to be a virtue for women in my community, rather it is the ability to mold and conform yourself to the needs of those around you that is most praised.  Women are held to extremely high standards of success – in the fields of work, physical beauty, “goodness”, dedication to family, and homemaking skills.  As someone who was used to living on my own, dependent upon take out for sustenance, and used to basing my success mostly upon professional achievements – there was an immediate disconnect.  I did not feel judged for my differences, but I struggled to identify how to develop a connection with the women in my community – a connection that was to be vital to my life here.
When I first arrived in town, fresh from two and a half months of language and technical training, I did not fully grasp the local context and how it would impact my life and work for the next two years.  I found myself warmly welcomed by my host family and most everyone in town.
Please be my friend.

Please be my friend.

Staring is a local past - time by men and women. Enter a kafe, and this is the effect.

Staring is a local past – time by men and women. Enter a kafe, and this is the effect.

Without consciously realizing it, I began to form my “sisterhood”, the women who advised and guided me. Directly and indirectly, from them I learned the ins and outs of the “Dibran culture”, the complicated nature of what it means to be a woman in this community, and the complex relationships that link this community together.  They also have formed part of my safety network.
At times, I have found myself extremely frustrated by the local gender expectations.  I think that I have a very specific face when I learn something that counters my sense of justice and equality – a girl beaten by a scorned boy, men being considered for a position over a woman as a woman has “too many obligations at home to dedicate the time to the job” – as my local friends will take one look at me and sigh, and say “This isn’t America , Rachael.”  These things happen in America too, the difference here is that these occurrences are accepted as a fact of life.  Here, I live in a society which has traditionally provided more privileges and opportunities to men, that divides the genders into very specific and defined boxes.  I witness the impact of these traditions first hand.  I live with a host family where I see these roles play out day in and day out.
Zana’s words came the day that I had told my host family that I was looking to move into an apartment (another example of my strange Americaness,  a women living alone here is viewed as quite peculiar) and I was walking home to see my host family for the first time after I had told them my decision.  My host brother had become engaged and his nuse (bride) would be moving into the house, and I had decided that it was time for me to look for my own space.  I was nervous about my host family’s reaction, and had asked Zana and the other coworkers that I usually meet for coffee to help me to look for an apartment.  I think Zana sensed my worry – she looked at me kindly as we parted ways near her apartment, waving to me and telling me to come over for coffee soon.  I smiled at her, and waved back.  Thank goodness for my Dibran sisters.

Среќен Бодник и Божиќ (Macedonian Orthodox Christmas Eve and Day)

Среќен Бодник! Среќен Божиќ! Христос се роди!  Orthodox Macedonians celebrate Christmas on January 7th, alongside other Orthodox Christians around the world. It is a very festive period, filled with family, food, tradition, and the spoiling of small children.

I returned to my Macedonian host family to celebrate бодник (Christmas Eve) and божиќ with them as most of my community is composed of Macedonian and Albanian Muslims, who do not celebrate божиќ.  I also realized that this is my last opportunity to celebrate божиќ with my host family, as my service will be over by November of this year – I’m not sure that I can wrap my mind around that fact!

Оn Christmas Eve, I hopped on a minibus for a three hour bus ride to the capital, Skopje, where I paused for a quick lunch, and then caught another bus from Skopje to Kumanovo.  I hoped to get off the bus on the highway near my host family’s village (and avoid going into Kumanovo, walking to the pazar and getting on a kombi to the village).  In my rough Macedonian, I was able to get the idea across and also attracted the attention of the entire bus – all of whom appeared curious about an American traveling to a small village on Christmas Eve.  The bus ride only proceeded to become more interesting when a rather inebriated passenger climbed aboard the bus (someone must have started celebrating early in the day).  My understanding of Macedonian, particularly intoxicated Macedonian is not that strong, but I gathered that he became convinced that I was from Germany and wanted to become Facebook friends.  I could hear a few quiet “леле’s” (kind of like a scolding “oh my god”) coming from other passengers. The bus driver proceeded to spray the air around him with air freshener (to get rid of the smell of alcohol, I suppose?).  Our new passenger also insisted upon giving me an apple and some walnuts.  I have become accustomed to receiving fruit and food from strangers, and refusal is not possible. He stumbled off the bus, and I was safely delivered to the side of the highway, where my host дедо (grandfather) waited for me.

I was happy to see Kiro, who carefully guided me across the freeway and the snow-covered fields of Romanovce.  We stopped for a moment to watch Millan, a host cousin, struggling to get his tractor out of the snow pile that it was stuck in while one of Millan’s friends gleefully snapped a few photos of the incident. A few minutes later we were home!  With three kisses cheek to cheek, I greeted my lovely host баба (grandmother), Ruja.  I settled in to catch up on the latest gossip, drink a little rakija (potent Macedonian liquor) and eat a bit of salad.  It was toasty warm with the шпорет (woodstove) running, and I felt right at home.

My host brother Andre came downstairs, having just woken up, and was busily playing video games on his new phone. Kiro ran in and out to take care of the cows and pigs.  It was very cold out, with plenty of snow and ice on the ground, and he and Ruja had to keep hot water prepared for the animals.  The village cats were crowding around the house’s windows, trying to stay warm.

Ruja had prepared a feast for бодник –  fish, salads, bread, pasta, beans, pita, peppers of all varieties, fruit, baklava, wine, soda…yum.  Christmas Eve marks the last day of a 40 day fast, during which no meat other than fish is eaten.  In one of the loves of bread was a coin, the recipient of which was granted good luck in the year ahead.  Ruja and Kiro’s son Zoran arrived home from work along with his wife Irina, which meant that it was time for the Christmas feast to begin!

Ruja set aside three loaves of bread first, one for god, one for the house, and one for the family, then the basket was passed to everyone. Andre was convinced that he knew which loaf contained the coin, suspiciously (in my eyes), he selected the correct loaf…hmm.  At first I misunderstood and thought that we had to stay awake all night, sitting at the table. It turned out that we merely were not supposed to leave the table while eating, and we left the food and dishes out all night (for the dead).  We watched the news and some Christmas specials after.  I learned that early in the morning on Christmas Eve, children go door-to-door singing.  They are welcomed and given fruit – apples, oranges, and nuts – chestnuts, walnuts, etc.  Suddenly the gift I received from my inebriated friend on the bus made a bit of sense, though I am certainly past the age of being considered within the realm of childhood.

Irina and Zoran were meeting with Zoran’s sister and her husband to go into Kumanovo to see the bonfire there and to sample some of the hot rakija that was being given away.  They invited me along and we all bundled into the car and made our way very carefully on the icy roads leading outside of the village.  There are usually bonfires on the day before Christmas Eve and the day of Christmas Eve.  Sadly we arrived at the end of the event, after a few moments of indecision, we decided to go to a cafe and ordered tea and desserts instead.  All-in-all, I preferred this ending to the evening, as it was freezing outside, even if there had been a bonfire and hot rakija.

Christmas morning came, and with it, plenty of na gosti’s (visitors).  First came the next door neighbor, Venka, with meat, sirenje (cheese) and desserts.  She sat down for a bit of breakfast with us, and she and Ruja traded desserts – a great way to increase the breadth of your dessert options. Next arrived Ruja’s daughter Elena, with her husband and one of their sons.  Next came Ruja’s other daughter, Biljana, with her husband and their daughter and son.  The children were presented with money from Ruja and Kiro, as well as bags of candies and treats from their aunts and uncles.  Lest you think me a scrooge, I too had brought gifts!  The rest of the day was spent socializing, eating, and drinking some of Kiro’s homemade wine.  Kiro and Ruja seemed a bit perturbed to see how quickly the wine was disappearing.  I would see Kiro dash outside every 30 minutes or so to fill another bottle for the table. Poor Kiro was exhausted after having woken up early in the morning to milk the cows and having helped Ruja get ready for божиќ, and disappeared for a period of time to sneak in a nap. Gradually the night wound down, and Elena and Biljana and their families made their way home.

The next morning brought an end to my visit.  Ruja, ever concerned that I am eating enough, packed a jar of ајвар for me, along with a bag of fruit and кифле (homemade pastries).  Zoran, Kiro, Ruja and I packed into his car.  We left Ruja at the graveyard to pay her respects to her brother and mother (as the day after Christmas is a day to visit the graves of family members who have passed), and Zoran dropped off Kiro and I in Skopje on his way to work.  Kiro walked me to the bus station, and made sure I was all set for my trip, before leaving me to go to the bank in the center of town.  How lucky I am to be included in the lives of such a lovely family.

божиќ feast!

божиќ feast!

Trendevski Family

Trendevski Family

Trying to keep up with the bigger napkin folders

Trying to keep up with the bigger napkin folders

Elenora

Leo

Culture and Relationships in My Community

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.