American Prom!

After much hard work, worrisome moments, and spurts of good luck, the drama that I worked on alongside my Macedonian tutor was performed!  The drama, American Prom, was inspired by teen movies of the 80s and 90s – Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, She’s All That, Ten Things I Hate About You, etc. This project would not have been possible without the help of numerous individuals – the high school psychologist who believed in our idea from the beginning, the manager of the theater at the House of Culture who always picked up his phone and responded to my requests (and was able to derive meaning from my ashtu-ashtu Albanian), my coworker at the Municipality who built the background for our prom scene, along with numerous others.

Of course, the real stars of the drama were the students. Twelve actors from the high school were featured in the drama, all performing in English – their third language.  Nerves were running high in the moments leading up to the performance – we were missing a performer, a wardrobe malfunction necessitated a change in dress, and students were anxiously peeking out to the audience to see if their family and friends had arrived.  Crises were miraculously averted, and the students carried off the performance smoothly.  The hours and weekends spent rehearsing showed in how well the students knew their lines and the changing of the scenography.  I am so proud of them.

I am eagerly waiting for the news channel who filmed the performance to provide a recording of the drama.  In the meantime, here is a link to my (surprise/impromptu) interview by one of the local news agencies and photos from the big day.

Interview for American Prom (fast forward to minute 5:30)

Prom Night Disaster!

Prom Night Disaster!

Photo 5

In class…making trouble

Photo 2

Dancing at the party

Photo 6

Disaster averted

Photo 4

A happy ending after all!



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

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

Chocolate Chip Cookie and Tea Time

Chocolate Chip Cookie and Tea Time

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

International Women's Day Celebrations

International Women’s Day Celebrations

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

Youth Theater Club!

Youth Theater Club!

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

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

Literary Minds Meet – One just can’t communicate…

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

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

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

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

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

Sisterhood: Part 1

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

Please be my friend.

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

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

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

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.


Puppies and Breakdowns

I was woken up by insistent, unending crying outside of my window one morning earlier this month.  The sun was just beginning to rise, and I was still clinging to sleep.  There are occasional dog and cat fights during the night in my neighborhood due to the large population of stray animals, and as I lay in bed – resisting waking up – I thought of all the possibilities that could be waiting for me outside.  What if there was an injured animal?  What would I do? After determining that the idea of staying inside simply because I was afraid of what I might find outside was ridiculous, I kicked off my blankets and made my way outside.  The first thing that I saw was an adult dog and her puppy.  The mother seemed beaten down, cowering away from me.  The crying continued, but seemed to be coming from my neighbor’s yard.  As I leaned over the fence, I realized that the crying was coming from a concrete hole, about 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep.  I approached cautiously, watching the mother carefully to see if she became aggressive, and peered into the hole.  Inside were two small, furry puppies – exhausted and deeply offended by their current situation.

I reached down cautiously (the puppies seemed too young to be aggressive) and I scooped one up easily, and deposited it near the mother and the other puppy.  The next puppy, while unhappy in the hole,  did not like the idea of being scooped up, and burrowed into the least accessible corner.  Fifteen minutes of huffing, puffing and contorting myself into a myriad of uncomfortable poses was rewarded, when I succeeded in using a hose to pry the puppy up and to place it near the rest of its family.  I felt like a super hero – the puppies and their mother were reunited and happy, and through a simple act, I had been able to help them.

PuppiesPuppies with MomThe hole

The next few days were spent taking care of the puppies – I felt as though the mother and I were sharing custody.  She would leave them during the day to join her pack and to rummage through dumpsters for food.  I would bring them water and milk, and play with them after work.  At first, I minimized contact, worried that she might abandon the puppies or become aggressive toward me.  As the days passed, we came to have a tacit agreement – she tolerated (and dare I say, appreciated) my presence and help, and I loved seeing the three little furry bodies that would come hurtling toward whenever I brought water or food for them.  I deluded myself into thinking that this would continue – that I would be able to help protect and care for these three little lives.

I grew up around dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, goats, chickens, horses, etc.  I love animals, and it is very natural for me to surround myself with them, and to care for them.  However, in Debar people rarely keep pets and stray dogs are treated with fear and revulsion.  It was also explained to me that in Islam, dogs are considered to be ritually unclean, and are to be avoided.  As the majority of the residents in Debar are Muslim, it is very unusual for dogs to be kept as pets.

After work one day, I went to the pharmacy to pick up flea shampoo for the puppies – they would whine out of pure frustration from itchiness.  I returned home to find that the puppies had disappeared.  They were always in one area of our neighborhood – mostly in the next door neighbor’s yard – a neighbor who lived in Italy most of the year.  I looked and looked for them.  I told myself that they would probably show up – they could not have wandered far.  My biggest fear was that they had been dumped somewhere; they had not been a popular addition to the neighborhood, but had been mostly tolerated by my family and our neighbors.

Two days later, when I was walking  home, I heard a familiar whining.  I realized that the puppies were living in the trash dump area close to the main road.  I saw that one puppy had an eye infection that had worsened, and that it could no longer move one of its back legs.  I felt so sad and helpless.  I brought them food, which they gobbled up.  That night, I skyped with my family, as soon as my father asked me how I was, I lost it.  I had not cried since I left America for Macedonia, and my walls came crashing down.  Everything that had been building up – issues around of gender equality, the overwhelming  feeling of being a stranger in a strange land, exhaustion from always being “on” – bubbled up from from the anger and sorrow that I felt about the puppies.  I turned into a blubbering mess.  After the conversation, in which my father and stepmom were amazingly supportive and kind about my sudden emotional meltdown,  I looked up a prayer written by Albert Schweitzer for animals (I have included the prayer at the end of this post).  I do not often pray, but I found comfort in saying the words and resolved that I would do what I could to help these animals, with or without support from anyone else.

The next morning, I spoke with my coworker to ask if she could show me where the veterinary hospital is located.  She responded that her cousin is a veterinarian, and she offered to call him to explain the situation.  He said that he would be happy to meet us after work to see the puppy with the eye infection and injured leg.  My coworker and I waited by the trash dump for him to arrive, drawing curious stares from passersby.  He arrived, and and while gently examining the puppy, explained that he and some of his colleagues from Switzerland (where he had attended school) had implemented a program to vaccinate and fix the street dogs in Debar a number of years ago, but without new funding and support, it was not possible to sustain such a program.  He said that he could help to wash the puppy to get rid of its skin infection, provide eye drops for the eye infection and provide vaccinations, but that it ultimately needed an owner.  I so badly wanted to be able to say that I would keep it, but I live with a host family, and keeping the dog was out of the question.   We agreed to meet the next day to take care of the puppy.  The next day arrived, and the puppies had again disappeared. I saw the mother, and I tried to follow her to find the puppies, but they were nowhere to be found.

The next few days were filled with puppy sightings – of every puppy except those I was looking to find.  While walking to the grocery store, I saw a dead puppy on the sidewalk, with flies hovering over it.  While looking around my neighborhood in search of the puppies, I saw a white, Labrador-looking puppy, being tossed out of a yard and landing with a yelp on the ground outside.

When I described everything that I had seen to my coworker, she suggested that I put forward an idea for a project on the street dog issue at a meeting we were having later that afternoon with members a local associations and NGOs.  I doubted that the idea would be taken seriously and was surprised when members indicated that they supported the idea.  Out of twelve ideas put forward, it was agreed that the street dog project would be the first project that the group would collaborate on – it would not only affect the lives and health of the dogs, but also of the community.  We are currently looking at similar projects that have been executed in Macedonia to put together a project plan that would be appealing to funders.

You can access more information on street dogs in the Balkans (it is a region-wide problem), via the following links:

Solving stray dog problem proves difficult in Balkan countries

Balkan Underdogs

A Prayer for Animals (Albert Schweitzer)

Hear our humble prayer, O God,
for our friends the animals,
especially for animals who are suffering;
for animals that are overworked,
underfed and cruelly treated;
for all wistful creatures in captivity
that beat their wings against bars;
for any that are hunted or lost or deserted
or frightened or hungry;
for all that must be put death.
We entreat for them all Thy mercy and pity,
and for those who deal with them
we ask a heart of compassion
and gentle hands and kindly words.
Make us, ourselves, to be true friends to animals,
and so to share the blessings of the merciful.