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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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.

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.

 

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.