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.

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.”

Hiking the Tallest Mountain in Macedonia – Mt. Korab

The Peaks of Korab

The Peaks of Korab

Two other volunteers contacted me to go for a camping/hiking adventure at Mt. Korab, the tallest mountain in Macedonia, which also happens to be in my backyard (about thirty kilometers away).  I felt a bit of trepidation about the trip as it would be only three of us wondering into the wilderness, I was just getting over being sick, and the temperature was beginning to drop.  Trepidation, cold and wimpiness aside, I packed my backpack Friday night and awoke the next morning (mostly) ready to hike the 2700 meters to the summit of Korab.  Though the mountain is not far from my town, logistics for getting ourselves to it were a bit complicated.  There are no direct kombis (buses) to the trail head, or even to get to the road leading to the trail-head.
We met in Mavrovo, where one of the free roaming, pony-sized mountain dogs befriended us.  I think he was mostly liked us due to the fresh bread I was carrying for our PB&J sandwiches.  Unfortunately, we had to leave him behind in order to catch a ride to the road leading to Mavrovo.  After about two hours of transportation mishaps, which resulted in us traveling back and forth across the same thirty kilolmeter area a few times, we finally ended up at the correct, unlabled road – thanks to the help of some fellow kombi passengers.
We were now at the right place, but how far did we have to hike to the trail-head?  I had read online that it was 19 kilometers from the base of the road to Pobeda police/border station, where the trail-head could be found.  I sincerely hoped that it was not that far.  Comforted by the fact that we were actually at the right place, we began the trek.  It was quite beautiful to walk alongside the river, Radika, and we had the road to ourselves.  At one point we went up the wrong hill, only to be informed by a baba (Macedonian grandmother) sitting on her front porch that we had gone the wrong way and had to go back down the hill and take the other road.  Once we were on the right road, we encountered another baba in the yard with her chickens.  She was dressed in the traditional dress, with a handkerchief wrapped around her head, knit leggings, and a knit dress with fringe at the bottom.  She waved to us, saying “Aјде да пиеме кафе!”, which was an invitation for conversation and  turkish coffee.  We eagerly accepted – it was cold out and some fresh, hot turkish coffee sounded very appealing.
She motioned us into a small stand-alone room with two beds, a cupboard and a stove.  One bed was occupied by drying beans, so we sat in the other.  She was shocked that we were hiking – three females with no men.  Upon discovering that the volunteers I was with spoke more Albanian than Macedonian, she switched from speaking Macedonian to Albanian, asking “A keni ju vellai, kusheri, shoket?”  She was asking where our brothers, cousins and male friends, etc. were – three women hiking and camping, especially without any men, was a very foreign concept to her.  While we might have disagreed about the need for male protection, we enjoyed our conversation and learning more about our hostess, Sveta.  She invited us to stay, shaking her head at our refusal.  We hit the road again, huffing our way up the mountain for another three hours to reach Pobeda.
We think that we are going the right way!
We reached the police station, and the police,curious about three Americans, invited us in for tea and helped us to build a fire outside.  We placed our tent in the shelter that they had for their wood kindling, as it helped to block some of the strong wind blowing around us.  When Kelly (one of the other volunteers) could not get her camp stove to light due to the wind, they let us use their kitchen.  Upon seeing that we were eating packaged ramen, they set about making sure that we had a more nutritious meal.  One policeman, big and smiley, made us a shredded beet salad from the biggest beet that I had ever seen.  The smaller, skinny one offered us bread.  In a poor exchange, we gave them one of our ramen packets.  Two other policemen joined the others – they had been outside and had gathered a bunch of bright yellow mushrooms.  The policemen were all excited to cook them and insisted that we try some as well.  Against my better judgement and fear of mushroom poisoning, I did.  It was delicious!  The small, skinny policeman regaled us with stories of his service twenty years earlier – when there had not been any electricity, this meant no phones and no light in a very isolated place subject to cold, snowy winters.  He also warned us to be careful of bears in the area.  Just what you want to hear whilst camping and hiking!
We bid them goodnight, promising that we would find them if we had any problems.  We proceeded to squeeze into Kelly’s two person tent. Alarms were set for 5 am the next morning, and snugly squished together, we fell asleep.  When we woke the next morning, the sky was still dark.  We filtered water, made our PB&Js and waited for the sun to rise.  At 6 am, we hit the trail.  Out of shape, I wheezed along for the first hour, and eagerly sat down for our breakfast of granola bars an hour later.
 Breakfast Break
The road split, with one way appearing to peter out by an abandoned house, and the other continuing in the opposite direction.  We chose to head in the direction away from the house. After walking for about two hours, we noticed that the road seemed to be one of the most indirect hiking trails that we had ever taken.  It would dip down and then rise back up, challenging our mostly unused hiking muscles.
Kelly happened to notice a footprint in one of the muddy sections of the road, and called us over.  It appeared to be a bear footprint.  The sight set us on edge, but as the print was pointing in the direction from which we had come, it seemed that the bear must have heard us and run back into the forest below.  We continued walking, passing a pile of fresh bear scat on the way.  Britt bravely temperature tested the scat, and told us that it had residual warmth.  Not the words that you want to hear about predator scat.  After a quick powow, we decided to continue on – as the bear had been going in the opposite direction – and reassess if we passed any additional signs of bears.  The next hour passed without incident.
The views along our walk were gorgeous, and the landscape was like nothing I had seen before.  Above the treeline, only golden grass was visible, and occasional mountain streams. The only other sign of human life came in the form of a small homestead type structure that we passed on the way.
The Climb
We finally came up amidst the peaks after two more hours of hiking.  Our trailed ended at the site of an old foundation – perhaps for a shelter.  Kelly was determined to find the summit, but we were all uncertain of where exactly the summit was, or whether we had already reached it.  We pressed on for another thirty minutes or so, until the foot trail that we stumbled upon disappeared.  We sat down to eat our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and decided that it was time to turn back.  It was ten o’clock and we had a good 8-10 more hours of hiking ahead of us, and buses to catch back to our homes.
We were pretty well exhausted already, and trekked in silence back the way that we had come.  When we arrived at the police station, we were greeted by a new group of policemen – the day before the policemen had been Macedonian.  This day they were Albanian.  They complimented us on our Albanian and we chatted for a little while.  We pulled down our tent and grabbed our bags, and waving goodbye to our new friends, we began the rest of the journey back to the main road.  On our return we called out to Sveta as we passed her house to let her know that we had safely made it back down from the mountain.  She must have been inside, as we weren’t able to find her.  At the bottom of the road, we said our goodbyes – I left for Debar, while Britt and Kelly walked to the nearby Communist monument to wait for their kombi.  We hugged, and agreed to meet again for another hiking adventure soon.

 

European Vacation!

Hungarian Parliament

Hungarian Parliament

 

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.

A Day in the Life

Many of my friends and family from home have been asking me about what I usually do every day as a Peace Corps volunteer – which made me realize that I have been good at sharing snippets of my experience, but not really sharing the specific details of what my life looks like here.

I work at a Municipality (local government) full time with a project team that is responsible for implementing an EU funded grant for regional tourism.  As a volunteer, I can take on other projects as well…which in my case currently involves teaching English to municipal workers – and beginning a women’s yoga class at the local house of culture.  I am so excited about kicking off the yoga class; I think that there is a growing shift in consciousness about health here, and while yoga classes are available in the capital, there are no resources in my town.  It is difficult for many women here to find the time to exercise or to attend a class like this due to the many responsibilities that they have in the home and at work.  Most women that are around my age are “nuse’s”, or new brides.  The majority of them move into their husband’s household after marriage and become responsible for managing (or co-managing, with their sister-in-laws – and mother-in-laws, depending on how nice the mother-in-law is) the house – which means cooking all meals, entertaining guests, and keeping the home clean.  This is on top of their jobs outside the home, which means that these are some very busy women.

On a typical day, I will wake up at about seven a.m. to get to work at eight a.m.  I greet the security guards of the Municipality in Albanian or Macedonian.  I am perfectly fluent in greetings, it’s the next levels of conversations that are problematic!  I settle in at the office and check my e-mail before joining a group of my female co-workers for our morning coffee.  Below is a photo of one of my colleagues and I sipping a cup of delicious Turkish coffee.  Coffee is made in every office using a small gas burner and finjan (the object you can see sitting on the burner).  Work here (and truly everywhere) is all about relationships, and the way you build relationships in Macedonia is over kafe.  The women that I drink coffee with every morning were my very first friends, and I love to start the day with their laughter and to hear the mixture of Albanian and Macedonian languages.

Coffee at the Office

Coffee at the Office

Turkish Kafe

Turkish Kafe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After coffee, I spend my time in a variety of ways: either A) working directly with my colleagues for project-related activities B) planning the curriculum for my next English class, or sequences for the yoga class C) working on my Peace Corps committee work for the Environmental Working Group or the Volunteer Support Network, or D) helping other volunteers with their projects or committee work (for example helping to interview applicants for this year’s Girls Leading Our World camp).  I take a break for breakfast at about 10:30 or 11 am (most people here eat their first meal at this time), either returning home to make a sandwich or going to a nearby restaurant with coworkers for my favorite dish, the pita submarine. In addition to my usual projects, I also usually have meetings or training related to the Peace Corps or my work at the Municipality.  My workday at the Municipality ends at 4 pm.

I return to my host family’s house to relax and grab a snack before going to the gym, going to language tutoring, or going for a run.  Whenever I tell people that I am going for a run, they usually look at me a bit quizzically, and either warn me that there are wild dogs around or ask me if I am worried that the wild dogs will attack me.  Of course, I was really worried when I first started running, and while I still give dogs – especially sheep dogs – wide berth, I feel comfortable with my running route.  Now that the weather has become more pleasant, I also see other people out for a walk or bicycle ride.

I also love going to the gym.  One of my friends at work invited me to go with her, and I was excited to have a gym buddy to work out with.  I knew that there was a gym or two in town, but I heard that it was mostly only men who worked out.  My friend’s neighbor works out at the gym too, and took us under his wing.  There are women who go to the gym, but we are few and far between.  I have found that the guys who regularly go to the gym are welcoming toward us, but there are also those few who simply stare or leer at us awkwardly.

After working out or finishing language tutoring, I go home or visit with my site mate to recap our days or to discuss some plans for new projects and activities – or I drop by a friend’s house for dinner.  I have found that I am incompetent at cooking meals over a standing gas canister, so if I eat dinner at home, it’s usually another sandwich or a salad.  And then?  I wrap up any outstanding Peace Corps related work, check and respond to e-mails, Skype with friends and family, and then get ready for the next day.

When I applied to the Peace Corps, I thought that I would be cooking my meals over a fire, or living in a hut in a village that has no internet or cell-phone service, and that my workplace would be in the fields.  Among many Peace Corps volunteers there is a skewed perception that in order to really be a PCV, you need to placed in areas of extreme poverty (which certainly do exist in Macedonia).  In reality, volunteers are sent to developing countries in all stages of development – we go where there is a need, and where we are invited to serve.  I am incredibly grateful to be a volunteer, and to be living and working in Macedonia.  It is a beautiful country, with warm and welcoming people, and it is my hope that I will be able to give as much to them as they have given to me.

 

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.”