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.”

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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.

Среќен Бодник и Божиќ (Macedonian Orthodox Christmas Eve and Day)

Среќен Бодник! Среќен Божиќ! Христос се роди!  Orthodox Macedonians celebrate Christmas on January 7th, alongside other Orthodox Christians around the world. It is a very festive period, filled with family, food, tradition, and the spoiling of small children.

I returned to my Macedonian host family to celebrate бодник (Christmas Eve) and божиќ with them as most of my community is composed of Macedonian and Albanian Muslims, who do not celebrate божиќ.  I also realized that this is my last opportunity to celebrate божиќ with my host family, as my service will be over by November of this year – I’m not sure that I can wrap my mind around that fact!

Оn Christmas Eve, I hopped on a minibus for a three hour bus ride to the capital, Skopje, where I paused for a quick lunch, and then caught another bus from Skopje to Kumanovo.  I hoped to get off the bus on the highway near my host family’s village (and avoid going into Kumanovo, walking to the pazar and getting on a kombi to the village).  In my rough Macedonian, I was able to get the idea across and also attracted the attention of the entire bus – all of whom appeared curious about an American traveling to a small village on Christmas Eve.  The bus ride only proceeded to become more interesting when a rather inebriated passenger climbed aboard the bus (someone must have started celebrating early in the day).  My understanding of Macedonian, particularly intoxicated Macedonian is not that strong, but I gathered that he became convinced that I was from Germany and wanted to become Facebook friends.  I could hear a few quiet “леле’s” (kind of like a scolding “oh my god”) coming from other passengers. The bus driver proceeded to spray the air around him with air freshener (to get rid of the smell of alcohol, I suppose?).  Our new passenger also insisted upon giving me an apple and some walnuts.  I have become accustomed to receiving fruit and food from strangers, and refusal is not possible. He stumbled off the bus, and I was safely delivered to the side of the highway, where my host дедо (grandfather) waited for me.

I was happy to see Kiro, who carefully guided me across the freeway and the snow-covered fields of Romanovce.  We stopped for a moment to watch Millan, a host cousin, struggling to get his tractor out of the snow pile that it was stuck in while one of Millan’s friends gleefully snapped a few photos of the incident. A few minutes later we were home!  With three kisses cheek to cheek, I greeted my lovely host баба (grandmother), Ruja.  I settled in to catch up on the latest gossip, drink a little rakija (potent Macedonian liquor) and eat a bit of salad.  It was toasty warm with the шпорет (woodstove) running, and I felt right at home.

My host brother Andre came downstairs, having just woken up, and was busily playing video games on his new phone. Kiro ran in and out to take care of the cows and pigs.  It was very cold out, with plenty of snow and ice on the ground, and he and Ruja had to keep hot water prepared for the animals.  The village cats were crowding around the house’s windows, trying to stay warm.

Ruja had prepared a feast for бодник –  fish, salads, bread, pasta, beans, pita, peppers of all varieties, fruit, baklava, wine, soda…yum.  Christmas Eve marks the last day of a 40 day fast, during which no meat other than fish is eaten.  In one of the loves of bread was a coin, the recipient of which was granted good luck in the year ahead.  Ruja and Kiro’s son Zoran arrived home from work along with his wife Irina, which meant that it was time for the Christmas feast to begin!

Ruja set aside three loaves of bread first, one for god, one for the house, and one for the family, then the basket was passed to everyone. Andre was convinced that he knew which loaf contained the coin, suspiciously (in my eyes), he selected the correct loaf…hmm.  At first I misunderstood and thought that we had to stay awake all night, sitting at the table. It turned out that we merely were not supposed to leave the table while eating, and we left the food and dishes out all night (for the dead).  We watched the news and some Christmas specials after.  I learned that early in the morning on Christmas Eve, children go door-to-door singing.  They are welcomed and given fruit – apples, oranges, and nuts – chestnuts, walnuts, etc.  Suddenly the gift I received from my inebriated friend on the bus made a bit of sense, though I am certainly past the age of being considered within the realm of childhood.

Irina and Zoran were meeting with Zoran’s sister and her husband to go into Kumanovo to see the bonfire there and to sample some of the hot rakija that was being given away.  They invited me along and we all bundled into the car and made our way very carefully on the icy roads leading outside of the village.  There are usually bonfires on the day before Christmas Eve and the day of Christmas Eve.  Sadly we arrived at the end of the event, after a few moments of indecision, we decided to go to a cafe and ordered tea and desserts instead.  All-in-all, I preferred this ending to the evening, as it was freezing outside, even if there had been a bonfire and hot rakija.

Christmas morning came, and with it, plenty of na gosti’s (visitors).  First came the next door neighbor, Venka, with meat, sirenje (cheese) and desserts.  She sat down for a bit of breakfast with us, and she and Ruja traded desserts – a great way to increase the breadth of your dessert options. Next arrived Ruja’s daughter Elena, with her husband and one of their sons.  Next came Ruja’s other daughter, Biljana, with her husband and their daughter and son.  The children were presented with money from Ruja and Kiro, as well as bags of candies and treats from their aunts and uncles.  Lest you think me a scrooge, I too had brought gifts!  The rest of the day was spent socializing, eating, and drinking some of Kiro’s homemade wine.  Kiro and Ruja seemed a bit perturbed to see how quickly the wine was disappearing.  I would see Kiro dash outside every 30 minutes or so to fill another bottle for the table. Poor Kiro was exhausted after having woken up early in the morning to milk the cows and having helped Ruja get ready for божиќ, and disappeared for a period of time to sneak in a nap. Gradually the night wound down, and Elena and Biljana and their families made their way home.

The next morning brought an end to my visit.  Ruja, ever concerned that I am eating enough, packed a jar of ајвар for me, along with a bag of fruit and кифле (homemade pastries).  Zoran, Kiro, Ruja and I packed into his car.  We left Ruja at the graveyard to pay her respects to her brother and mother (as the day after Christmas is a day to visit the graves of family members who have passed), and Zoran dropped off Kiro and I in Skopje on his way to work.  Kiro walked me to the bus station, and made sure I was all set for my trip, before leaving me to go to the bank in the center of town.  How lucky I am to be included in the lives of such a lovely family.

божиќ feast!

божиќ feast!

Trendevski Family

Trendevski Family

Trying to keep up with the bigger napkin folders

Trying to keep up with the bigger napkin folders

Elenora

Leo

Лошо Време (aka, Bad Weather)

It started snowing on Friday, which resulted in the transformation of my town into a sugar frosted, confectionified version of itself. I was happy as I love the snow – how it creates a cushion of silence against the ordinary grinding noises of the world, and, how it sparkles in the sunlight.  However, by Sunday, the snow had become sleet.  While walking to my friend’s house, a Christmas present tucked into the bag hanging in my left hand, cars drove by sending slush splashing around me and the wind threw rainy slush flakes at my body and fought to tear the umbrella right out of my hand.  Next thing I knew, my weakling Christmas bag literally bottomed out, spewing candy right and left and sending the very breakable glass cup it contained to it meet its sad end on the concrete. Oh weather, how fickle you are.  The electricity also happened to go out later that evening, leaving us without power for around 15 or 16 hours. However, the weather today was more than enough of an apology to make up for yesterday’s minor catastrophes.

Snow-capped Mountains

Winter Snow at Sunset

Winter Snow at Sunset

Moon and Snow

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.