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!

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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.