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.

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.

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.”

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

Ramazan in Macedonia

Ramazan officially began this past Saturday, which means that the majority of my friends and colleagues are fasting from about 2 am in the morning until 8:30 pm at night.  No food, no water or other drinks.  I was in Skopje for the weekend and returned on Monday night to the sound of drums and a large iftar meal (the meal eaten to break the fast). Children play the drums, walking from neighborhood to neighborhood.  They are provided with some gifts (money) as go.  Sounds like a pretty good gig , right?

Onions are the prominent vegetable in the iftar meal.  The most traditional dish is made of onions that have been cooked down for at least four hours, ground beef is added, and once the four hours have passed, eggs are cracked over the hot mixture.  My host mom purchased 15 kilograms of onions to prepare this dish – which will be served at every iftar meal.  I was hesitant to try it at first, given my stomach issues, but I threw caution to the wind and prayed that the water had not been shut off (it usually is shut off for a few hours every day in the summer) in case I had a need for the toilet *ahem*. It was absolutely delicious – the taste reminded me a bit of sloppy joe filling.

After dinner, my host mom offered me coffee as she joked that she had not missed eating food all day, but missed coffee. I politely declined as I was uncertain of how my stomach might respond to this volatile combination.

It is interesting how the dynamic of the town changes during Ramazan.  The coffee bars and sidewalks are usually packed with people during the day, but during Ramazan the streets are empty.  Most people are relaxing and sleeping at home.  The real party begins after the sun sets – after the iftar meal families, children and teens spill out of their homes to walk around town and to meet with their friends for coffee.  During Ramazan the activities of day and night are almost reversed.

This morning, I decided that I would try to fast, which was a short lived experiment.  The office that I work in does not have air conditioning, and while the floor to ceiling windows surrounding the office are beautiful, they also insulate the room – creating the sensation that you are baking in an oven.  I admitted defeat, filled my water bottle and grabbed a banana.  I am impressed by those of my Muslim friends and coworkers that do observe the fast for Ramazan – it is an especially difficult time of year to abstain from drinking water.

I should mention that not every Muslim fasts for Ramazan, for a variety of reasons, and the fasting portion of Ramazan (to my understanding) is only one facet of observance.  Indeed, it seems that this month is a period of particular spiritual and religious observance for Muslims, when expectations for striving to follow the tenets of the Islamic faith are high.

Now, I am off to meet with some friends to go out for coffee after finishing my vezë dhe qepë (eggs and onions).  Gezuar Ramazani!  Happy Ramazan!

A Comic Book About Macedonia

Macedonia by Harvey Pekar and Heather Roberson

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.”

Reunion and Celebration

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!