As I sit at my desk, trying to manage the latest of many bumps in the road as I attempt to bring the youth drama that I have been working on for the past five months to the stage (I keep repeating the old adage “nothing worth doing is easy” to myself), my mind wandered back to a day trip that I took this past weekend. A family that I am friends with invited me and another volunteer to take a road trip with them to Sveti Naum in Macedonia and two cities in Albania. I am sharing a few photos from our adventures below:
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.
…of food adventures gone awry. It’s never pleasant to sweat while you eat. Hoping to be back to normal soon.
THAT time of the year is approaching – yes, the Superbowl. Most years I have remained ignorant of the Superbowl hooplah. I don’t really understand football and I am a disinterested spectator for sports where you cannot see the players faces. However, after living outside of the U.S. for five months, I feel a sudden urge to participate as many American activities as possible, and the Superbowl is at the top of my list for “Americaness”.
Earlier this week I spoke with a co-worker about the Superbowl, though I am truly the least qualified person to explain this event to a foreigner (it involved some furtive googling). The conversation went something like this:
Coworker: “What teams are playing?”
Me: “The Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos”
Coworker: “A group of the volunteers is meeting to watch the game? What food are you making?” (Balkan people love food as much as I do)
Me: “Yes, and we will have a bunch of food…nachos, chicken wings, beer, etc.”
Coworker: “Chicken wings? Not chicken fingers?”
For some reason this comment makes me assume that my coworker does not know what chicken wings are, and I promptly launch into an attempt to describe chicken wings. How does one describe chicken wings? For me it involved flapping my arms. My coworker interrupts me to say that he knows what chicken wings are. *Sigh*
In working abroad, I have found that everyone has perceptions of what the other person knows and we all have surprising little pockets of knowledge as well as glaring deficits. For example, I had no idea that everyone in my town knew about twerking. Thank you Miley Cyrus for your contribution to educating the world about America. The process of discovering each other’s knowledge is rather like shooting in the dark with the person you are shooting at does not make a sound. Did I hit the mark, or did I end up putting another bullet through the insulation? Or rather, you say something, wait for recognition or seek to identify whether the other party is just nodding along (which I am guilty of) before diving deep into the origins of the unknown subject or word.
I stood in my coworker’s shoes when my language tutor was teaching me vocabulary for time. We thoroughly covered the number of minutes in an hour, hours in a day, months in a year, etc. – in English. While it made me feel quite smart that I knew the answer to all of the questions, I also wanted to say that I already know these details as the measure of time is the same all over the world (at least I think so?).
The Scene: Your first week working at a new job in a foreign country
The Location: The bathroom
The Action: Realizing that you have become locked in the bathroom
Choose your own adventure…
A) Call for help (realizing that you only remember how to say help in Macedonian, not Albanian, the mother tongue of most of your colleagues)
B) Wait in stoic silence to be discovered
C) Knock on the door and hope that someone will eventually hear you (bear in mind that most people do not drink as much water as you do, and likely visit the bathroom less frequently)
D) Cry, and tumble into a useless heap on the floor
While I debated pursuing options A and B, I ultimately chose option B. So if you chose option B, congratulations! Great minds think alike.
Aside from this incident, my first two weeks in Debar/Diber have passed smoothly. I adore my host family – they are warm and welcoming and have been incredibly kind in introducing me to their friends and family, the people who compose my social life. The town is small, and I stand out a bit like the new kid who just transferred from another high school. In that sense, I should be well-prepared given the transient nature of my teens; however, I still find myself struggling with certain adjustments (bathroom doors are enemy #1 currently, but kissing cheeks as a way of greeting without re-enacting the awkward hug scene from Just Friends follows in a close second place).
If you were concerned for my well-being, or simply curious to see if I am still trapped in the bathroom and blogging from there, have no fear, I was discovered. The door jammed and could not be unlocked from the outside even using the key that remained in the lock on the outside, so a coworker had to break down the door to enable my escape.