There and Back Again

In late April, I received a message from my sister.

“Hi Rach, can you call me?  It’s important.”

Two days and a few phone calls later, I was on a flight back to America.  My father, a healthy and active man, was in the hospital and was fighting what appeared to be a losing battle for his life.  I could not come to terms with the fact that one of the most stable and dependable people in my life was slipping away, and that I was going to have to try to live and function in a world that did not include him. Just a week earlier, we had been discussing his plans to visit me in Macedonia – his first trip abroad.

The next two weeks passed in a surreal blur, broken up by alternating waves of emotions. Hope and despair followed after each other in a seemingly endless cycle.  As a family, we hung on every word spoken by his nurses and doctors, fear filling our hearts when we would hear the words “I’m sorry.”

I remember holding dad’s hand, hoping that he did not notice the tears that streaked my face.  He still had a firm grip and would squeeze my hand to communicate. He was subjected to long monologues from all of us, which he seemed to tolerate well enough, even when I ran out of topics and babbled on about mundane, silly matters. We became friends with the other families who spent their hours and days in the trauma ward.  In a hospital complex so large that guides were employed, I became a kind of unofficial guide myself, helping others as they attempted to navigate its numerous wards.  My niece and nephew, too young to go to the hospital, kept asking about their grandfather “Pa”, and whether he was better yet.

There were moments of desperate humor, such as when my father spelled “Get me out of here” when we asked him if he needed anything. On the worst night, when the doctors had asked us to leave dad’s room and to prepare ourselves for the fact that he was unlikely to live through the night, I felt as though a giant vise had squeezed all emotion and tears out of me; all that was left was an empty hysteria.  As we settled into the waiting room, my brother Jason suggested that I rest on the couch.  For some reason we thought it necessary to clean the couch first, and used Clorox bleach wipes to wipe it down.  I was about to lie down when I realized that the bleach from the wipes would probably bleach my clothes.  I have no idea how or why I was capable of even thinking of anything so mundane. After days of sorrow and fear, the ridiculousness of this mundane thought struck Jason and me as hilarious and we smiled a little insanely at each other.

Dad made it through that night, and another, and another.  After a number of surgeries and a few days of stable vital signs, dad’s surgeon – a self-declared “realist” – declared that he was realistically optimistic that dad would recover. Perhaps it sounds strange, but my confidence in the surgeon’s words came one day when dad and I watched (well, dad napped a bit) a marathon of Indiana Jones movies – film staples in our family. It felt like a glimmer of normalcy.  With each day that passed, we could see progress.  Fewer and fewer medications hung around dad’s bed.

Eighteen days after I arrived in America, I boarded my flight back to Macedonia. Doubt about my decision hung heavy in my mind – though the doctors assured us that dad was on the road to recovery- he was being moved to another, less intensive floor and he was about to begin working with a physical therapist; I was worried that something would happen.  I had no idea whether I had made the right decision to return to my service.

Thanks to technology (Wifi is abundant in Macedonia).  I can regularly check-in on dad – and even to FaceTime with him.  A week has passed since I left the U.S., but in terms of dad’s recovery, he has made huge strides (literally – he is able to get up and walk with some assistance) forward.  Six months from now, I will return home to America and I am incredibly grateful that I will get to hug my dad, just like I did when I left for this adventure two years ago.

...especially when it comes to food!

We both make a good crazy face for the camera – it’s genetic!

We both make a good crazy face for the photo - it's a genetic talent!

…especially when it comes to food!


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.

Projects – Getting the Ball Rolling…

I have to apologize for the delay in updates, especially after my last post may have left you wondering if I had sunk into a deep pit of despair, never to emerge again. Fear not!  I hit a bump in the road – one of those days when every street dog seemed to be crying out for my help, where my brain was too sluggish to process any language other than English, where work seemed to going nowhere, and I felt out of place and out of sorts.  This combination formed a kind of Peace Corps “kryptonite.”

After allowing myself a day or two to come to terms with these feelings, I began to brainstorm small steps to improve my situation and outlook.  Part of that involved me re-evaluating my expectations of my work, my community, my relationships and myself.   I have consistently struggled with identifying a purpose and use for my skills at my worksite.   My background seems to have no connection with working at an institution of local self-governance, and while I have turned myself upside down and inside out trying to find ways to fit into this environment, I came to the realization that, at least for the the present moment, there are more opportunities and need for me outside of my municipality than within it.

Since my last post, I have helped to form a GLOW Club for high school girls (GLOW is an acronym for Girls Leading Our World), with the aim of helping young women in the community to develop leadership and life skills.  I work with a leadership team of about six girls who participated in GLOW Camp this past year to put together twice monthly activities for club members.  I am also working with my friend (and Macedonian tutor) to put together a youth theater club that will bring together high school students of different ethnic backgrounds in a positive activity. This project is dependent upon getting involvement from Macedonian and Albanian youth as well as funding from a grant, so I am nervously waiting to see how this activity pans out.  All of these activities are in English (lucky me!) and are also designed to help youth to improve and practice their English language skills.

Since my last post, I have attempted to step down my expectations a bit – to recognize that I am doing the best that I can.  Everything about being a volunteer is a balancing act, and I would sometimes forget that I needed to also balance my needs and interests with those of my friends, work and community.  I also had some feelings of dissatisfaction with the relationships that I had developed in my community – I had very American expectations of friendship and family that do not align that closely with the concepts that exist here.  In addition to relaxing my expectations of myself, I have learned to be more flexible with my expectations of others and to accept what they offer and not to extend my cultural expectations to them.  I am planning to talk more about the cultural values and traditions of my host community as they relate to family and friendship in my next post, so stay tuned to hear more!

How I Feel Today

In one word. Ugh.

Shy Lion—source tumblr

After coasting along for a bit – feeling as though I am getting momentum at my site, I hit a wall today.  A wall which makes me feel as though I am getting nowhere.  Projects are proceeding in a grindingly slow manner, the relationships that I have worked so hard to build seem flimsy.  I feel tired and worn down.  Here’s to a new day tomorrow.

The One Year Mark

On September 15th last year, I officially arrived as a Peace Corps trainee in Macedonia.  The time has passed so quickly, that I am beginning to realize with growing trepidation that I will find myself sitting in front of my computer typing the words “Saying Farewell” in very little time at all.

In looking back over the past year, I am beginning to realize how far I have (and have not) come from the version of me that stepped off the plane last fall.  More than anything, the multitude of experiences – good and bad – have refined my values, ideals, and boundaries – perhaps because the experience has tested all of these areas.

Over a cup of coffee with one of my language teachers, he jokingly remarked “You came to change Macedonia, and we changed you!” I laughed – isn’t it true that as Peace Corps volunteers, we arrive with the hope to help the citizens of the country in which we serve to make a positive impact in their communities?  We (or at least, I) could not anticipate all of the changes that would occur internally in order to be able to do this work – to integrate with a foreign community and culture, to overcome adversity, to admit weakness, to create strength (or even just the illusion of it), to step outside one’s comfort zone.

Some of these changes occur unwittingly, such as when I catch myself staring in true dibranche fashion – aka, like a local – at someone that I do not know walking down the street (I completely understand why I was stared at when I arrived in town – I was an unknown face, a rare occurrence in a town of 8,000 people); while others I made by choice or through experience.  Some changes I adamantly decided not to make, which taught me about my own character.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, you become what you are needed to be and what you are willing to be.  None of us came perfectly pre-packaged to fulfill the expectations of our communities or our organizations.  When I had spoken with RPCVs in the U.S. as I prepared for my departure, they all universally said that it was in their second year that they felt as though they “hit their stride.”  In other words, they understand what needed to be done, what they wanted to do, and they had a the knowledge and resources (hopefully) to do the work that they had joined the Peace Corps to do.

Fingers crossed that the same is true for me.


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!




I woke up one night last week in a nice, cold sweat after dreaming of being washed away by a flood.  This seems like a clear message from my subconscious that I am feeling a bit overwhelmed and out of control – reasonable, since I have spent the past month sick and I am still trying to settle into my new surroundings. I have made it through the “I can’t eat anything, nope not even that” stage; the delusional fever stage; the realization that the stressors that led me to be so, so sick needed to be dealt with; dealing with said stressors made me more sick; and finally, the realization in coming out the other side that I could have prevented a lot of this simply by being more vocal about my boundaries and strategic about where I invest my time and resources. Whew.

I came to my town with the usual all or nothing attitude (which means that I am operating at level “all”, as always).  Can I take over teaching English classes though I have never taught English? Of course!  Can I begin a new job at full swing and adapt to cultural differences and new communication styles? Bring it on!  Can I do this all while adapting to living with a new host family, a new city and saying yes to every social invitation that I receive? Yes! Can I prove that I can speak two new languages that I have spent the last three months learning? Piece of cake.

I do not regret the mistakes that I made in my first few months as this “Oh my god, this may be only opportunity to do X or to meet Y, or to make that first impression” attitude enabled me to learn a lot and to make a number of wonderful friends.  However, I do wish that I had thought more about the fact that I have two years to prove myself, two years to show who I am and what I can do for this community. I don’t have to do everything all at once  or to be everything to everyone – which is, incidentally, impossible to do anyway.

I had another dream last night reminiscent of Stephen King’s “Tommyknockers”, in which some malignant stuffed animals were on the prowl.  I was going to let this dream pass without further examination or interpretation…but then I thought, maybe it’s about confronting your little monsters? The things in your life that start out as benign, but because you don’t set boundaries or establish your needs, these initially benign things begin to run amok, just because they can? Maybe I am over analyzing things (as I am apt to do).  Regardless, I learned a very good lesson just in my first few months of service, you can’t take care of others unless you take care of yourself.  Priceless (well, if you don’t count the hours I spent at home sick).