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.
Unlike the squirm-inducing hilarity of the Griswalds European Vacation, my European vacation was like an amazing dream. Fate manifested a sign of things to come in the form of not one but two “good luck” bird dropping incidents on the date of my departure, August 9th. Lucky me! Seriously.
I shall have to plant myself under heavily bird-trafficked areas in the future, if I owe the loveliness of my vacation to these two “gifts.” I will not go into too much detail, except to say that I had a wonderful time with three of my best friends in some pretty awesome places – Budapest – where we danced with a caveman to the Bloody Beetroots, a show which did, as our new French acquaintances promised, “rip our faces off”; bathed in the largest medicinal bath in Europe (and got our mint sauna on); and joined the other young tourists to explore the city’s ruin bars – Vienna – where we walked off our significant sacher tort, coffee, dumpling and beer intake while enjoying the beautiful architecture and history of Austria’s capital – and, Prague – a city filled with interesting, ancient urban legends of a golem, a pagan fire that could not be extinguished, a princess prophet, statues coming life to catch those seeking to steal from the church (I am kicking myself for not buying a book highlighting these, plus 74 other fascinating tales, at the Strahov Monastery); and a city that is also home to the beautiful astronomical clock and is the capital of a country with one of the largest atheist populations in Europe (and perhaps the world, depending on your source).
These are three amazing cities, and I do them a disservice with my short descriptions. I hope that you will have the opportunity to visit them yourself, or that you have already had the chance to do so.
I also visited Italy to attend the wedding of my friend, Bridie, to her Italian fiancee (now husband), Francesco. They are a lovely couple, and the wedding could not have been more beautiful. I was fortunate to have chosen, rather randomly *ok, actually because the hotel was a bit cheaper than others and I have a small budget* to stay in Certaldo Alto, which is the ancient part of the city. It was well worth the extra walk or funicular ride, for the amazing view and ambiance. The ceremony was held in a church dating from the 12th century (imagine how many people have been married in it!) in the Tuscan countryside. The officiating priest was excellent and warm, and managed to maintain a perfect balance of seriousness with humor for the ceremony. I also loved the sprinkling of references to philosophy and Bruce Springsteen he added to his comments. I also had the opportunity to spend time with some of Bridie’s co-workers (old and new) and friends from Northside Social, one of my favorite coffee shops, which is also home / place of work for some very awesome people.
I also ran around Rome a bit on my own, picking up new friends as I went, and also getting my first Dottor Fish pedicure. Wow. What an amazing trip.
Earlier this week I packed my bags to join 80 high school girls, camp staff and other Peace Corps volunteers at Camp GLOW (an acronym for Girls Leading Our World) as a guest instructor. I was only staying for one night – just enough time to lead classes on interpersonal violence and how to make American pancakes. The diversity of class topics reflects the nature of the camp – while there is a focus on friendship and fun, it is also about creating a safe environment for girls to discuss topics that are typically taboo – the things that they can’t or don’t want to talk to friends and family about.
The night that I arrived at camp, I was invited by a camp counselor (and fellow PCV) to join one of the groups of girls to participate in an activity called identity circles. The activity began with each girl writing five words to describe herself, and then sharing these words and the reason that they were selected with the group. It was evident that the group had established trust with one another as they were very open about their lives -stories of grief, hope, loneliness, strength, confidence, uncertainty, and loss all emerged through five words. When I went to bed that night (or at least tried to sleep while wedding music blared into the wee hours from the restaurant next door), I was a little overwhelmed and apprehensive about the class that I was to teach on interpersonal violence the next day – did I have the right material? Was I really the right person to be facilitating this class? I have experience with interpersonal violence within my extended family, but what could I offer to these girls? I just told myself to take a deep breath and to focus on the campers. This was about providing them with important information and creating a safe, confidential space for them to discuss the topic openly and without judgement.
The format of GLOW is that required classes, like the one that I was teaching, are taught to four different groups of girls. The first class began at 9 am and the last class ended at 1 pm. I was lucky to have a great co-facilitator, a former camper turned camp counselor, as well as another counselor who bravely volunteered to share her personal experiences with the class. The classes flew by, and each class was different – the dynamic varied on the group, with most of the class being dedicated to discussion. The topic is emotionally charged, and I was impressed by the ways that the campers would open up and empathize with one another. I think that the opportunities available to these girls to candidly discuss issues like interpersonal violence and other class topics, including sex education, stereotypes, etc., are too few. GLOW provides a forum for these “taboo” discussions to occur and for girls to establish really strong friendships and support networks. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to play a small part in the camp and to meet so many future young leaders from across Macedonia. It is my hope that these girls will in turn carry what they learned and experienced at GLOW to their communities, and to help to support other young women as they grow into confident and healthy adults.
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.
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:
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.
Ramazan officially began this past Saturday, which means that the majority of my friends and colleagues are fasting from about 2 am in the morning until 8:30 pm at night. No food, no water or other drinks. I was in Skopje for the weekend and returned on Monday night to the sound of drums and a large iftar meal (the meal eaten to break the fast). Children play the drums, walking from neighborhood to neighborhood. They are provided with some gifts (money) as go. Sounds like a pretty good gig , right?
Onions are the prominent vegetable in the iftar meal. The most traditional dish is made of onions that have been cooked down for at least four hours, ground beef is added, and once the four hours have passed, eggs are cracked over the hot mixture. My host mom purchased 15 kilograms of onions to prepare this dish – which will be served at every iftar meal. I was hesitant to try it at first, given my stomach issues, but I threw caution to the wind and prayed that the water had not been shut off (it usually is shut off for a few hours every day in the summer) in case I had a need for the toilet *ahem*. It was absolutely delicious – the taste reminded me a bit of sloppy joe filling.
After dinner, my host mom offered me coffee as she joked that she had not missed eating food all day, but missed coffee. I politely declined as I was uncertain of how my stomach might respond to this volatile combination.
It is interesting how the dynamic of the town changes during Ramazan. The coffee bars and sidewalks are usually packed with people during the day, but during Ramazan the streets are empty. Most people are relaxing and sleeping at home. The real party begins after the sun sets – after the iftar meal families, children and teens spill out of their homes to walk around town and to meet with their friends for coffee. During Ramazan the activities of day and night are almost reversed.
This morning, I decided that I would try to fast, which was a short lived experiment. The office that I work in does not have air conditioning, and while the floor to ceiling windows surrounding the office are beautiful, they also insulate the room – creating the sensation that you are baking in an oven. I admitted defeat, filled my water bottle and grabbed a banana. I am impressed by those of my Muslim friends and coworkers that do observe the fast for Ramazan – it is an especially difficult time of year to abstain from drinking water.
I should mention that not every Muslim fasts for Ramazan, for a variety of reasons, and the fasting portion of Ramazan (to my understanding) is only one facet of observance. Indeed, it seems that this month is a period of particular spiritual and religious observance for Muslims, when expectations for striving to follow the tenets of the Islamic faith are high.
Now, I am off to meet with some friends to go out for coffee after finishing my vezë dhe qepë (eggs and onions). Gezuar Ramazani! Happy Ramazan!
Poppies appear everywhere in Macedonia…unfortunately, so does trash.