Sisterhood: Part 2

Two months remain in my service – whew!  Where did they go?  Making ajvar, traveling the winding road between the capital and my town, catching up with colleagues over coffee, hiking the Macedonian mountains, teaching English, leading a girls leadership club, avoiding bathrooms (!), determining polite ways to refuse eating more food than would be prudent, practicing speaking Macedonian and Albanian, being invited by random babas for tea and conversation….the list goes on and on. However, most prominent in my memories will be the Albanians and Macedonians who welcomed me into their lives with open arms and doors.

With the next few posts, I wanted to profile some of the women (and men) in Macedonia who offered me their friendship and cared for me as a sister (or daughter, in some cases!).  For my first post, I happy to introduce you to my dear friend Zana.

Tea and Coffee after Iftar

Tea and Coffee after Iftar with Zana and Family

I met Zana my very first day working at the municipality.  She seemed determined to take me under her wing (or perhaps I just looked thoroughly lost and confused and in need of a mother figure), despite the fact that I could barely understand Albanian and she did not know any English.  She did try speaking French and Macedonian with me, and at this point I knew more Macedonian than Albanian, so we managed some very basic communications.  Our conversations went something like this:

Zana: “A je e gati per kafe?” (Are you ready for coffee?)

Me: “Uh, po, faleminderit” (I did not understand any of the words except coffee, and decided that it was safe to say “yes” and “thank you” to something about coffee).

Zana: “Mire, hajde te shkojme ne lart.” (Good, let’s go upstairs)

Me: “Ok, faleminderit” (No idea what I was saying “ok” to – incidentally, during this period I may have erroneously answered numerous questions about America and my marital status – marital or dating status questions are popular to ask when meeting someone)

My Albanian began to improve over time, and as it did, I gradually learned more about Zana.  Zana was widowed at a young age, and lives with her sister and nephew. I also soon came to realize that everyone in town knows Zana.  I could not walk five feet with her downtown without someone – Albanian, Macedonian, or Roma – stopping her to chat.

During my second year of service, I made the decision to move out of the homestay that I had been living in, and to find an apartment.  In my community, it is rare for a woman to live alone, but Zana did not judge my choice and began helping me with my apartment search.  Most apartments in my town are empty during the year, but quickly fill back up in summer with families returning from abroad.  With nowhere to live, I worried that I would have to change sites and start over again in another location.  However, Zana ended up finding an apartment in her building – located just around the corner from my work.  The landlord seemed reluctant to rent to a stranger from America, but with Zana campaigning for me, he buckled.  It is thanks to her that I have lived for the last seven months in a safe, comfortable apartment – with great neighbors, of course.

On move-in day, Zana’s eight year old nephew was delighted to get a new neighbor (I think he thought that I would be more exciting than I actually am), and valiantly helped to lug the various items that I had managed to accumulate during my service up five flights of stairs.  Since then, he usually appears on my doorstep for English homework advice or to watch parts of Spiderman – in his words “filmi me i mire ne bote” (the best film in the world).

When I received news that my father was in the hospital and I was getting ready to fly home, Zana was the first person that I saw.  She had invited me down for caj rusi (Russian Tea), and I went downstairs to tell her that I could not stay for tea. She took one look at me, and soon the news came pouring out.  She and her sister were also the first people that I saw when I returned from staying with my father in America while he underwent multiple surgeries.  I had been back in my community for just a few hours when I heard a knock on the door and found Zana and Ana outside with presents for me for my birthday, checking in to see how I was and whether my father was better.

The above photo was taken one night when Zana invited me to her home for Iftar dinner (the dinner to break the fast during Ramadan).  It is a true honor to be invited to someone’s home for Iftar dinner, and a feast had been laid out by Zana and Ana.  After dinner, it is tradition in my community for everyone to walk through the center of the city and to go to one of the popular late night coffee bars and chat well into the early morning hours until Safir (the last meal before fasting begins again). We followed this tradition and stopped for tea and coffee at one of the most beautiful coffee bars in town, and one of the nuses (brides) in Zana’s family took this photo of us.

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Macedonia in the News

The past few days have seen Macedonia featured in the news regarding the handling a refugees (many of them from Syria) streaming over the border from Greece to access Serbia and, further along, Western Europe.

I have traveled between Greece and Macedonia a few times in the last two years and have noticed an increase in the number of refugees seeking to pass through Macedonia. Prior to Macedonia changing their asylum law (changed in June to allow refugees to legally travel through the country within a period of three days), it was not unusual to see numerous groups of 20-30 men bicycling across Macedonia from Greece in order to reach Serbia. The flow of refugees continues, but plans for how to manage the crisis seem conflicting across Europe. After two days of increased police presence at the border between Macedonia and Greece, the flow of refugees was allowed to continue yesterday.

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34034255

A Detour to Greece

A secret walkway down to a rocky beach

A secret walkway down to a rocky beach

One of the benefits of serving in the Peace Corps is being able to explore places that you might otherwise never have had the opportunity to visit. Prior to moving to Macedonia, the extent of my international travels included a trip to Vancouver, BC and a short study abroad experience in Florence, Italy.  Due to Macedonia’s location, it is (relatively) easy to travel to neighboring countries over the weekend.  This still boggles my mind.  The ease with which my Washington, DC friends and I would plan weekend camping trips in the Shenandoah or Dolly Sods in WV is the same way that my fellow volunteers and I now plan trips to Albania or Kosovo. Actually, it is perhaps even easier as I am not driving my old car, which constantly threatened to deteriorate or spontaneously combust at the slightest provocation – such as steep hills or winding roads.

Last week, one of my friends and I took a bus from Skopje (the capital of Macedonia) to Thessaloniki, Greece.  From there, we caught another bus to the transfer bus station for Halkidiki, which contains the “three fingers”.  My impression is that the first finger, Kassandra, is known as the “party” finger; the middle finger (ahem), Sithonia, is the quieter one known for its natural beauty; the third finger, Athos, is home to a large monastic community in the southern portion, with some towns sprinkled to the north.  We decided to stay on Sithonia in Neos Marmaras, a quiet, family-friendly town located on the western portion of Sithonia.  It should be noted that we did not realize that we would be staying in an area primarily frequented by families on vacation – nothing against vacationing families, but we did appear as anomalies (twenty-something, single women literally floating in a sea of small children and their parents).  I was also struck by the fact that most of the tourists appeared to be from the Balkans – I thought that I heard a good amount of Macedonian and Serbian spoken.

The beautiful sea

The beautiful sea

We were interested in traveling to Mt. Athos to visit the oldest surviving monastic community in the world, one which is a self-governing republic.  After a bit of research, we quickly realized that this would be impossible.  Women are not permitted to visit the monasteries, and there are very strict rules and procedures governing the admittance of male visitors.  For those that are permitted to visit, it seems that they are granted a window into a world that is tied to traditions and an ascetic lifestyle that lie beyond the reach (and perhaps comprehension) of those of us who live in the modern world.

On the beach

On the beach

We enjoyed four days of lazy mornings, days spent on the beach and swimming in the sea (yes, the water is that crystal clear), and evenings spent strolling through town and partaking in delicious Greek food and wine.  We came across retsina wine – I will be honest and say that I did not like it the first time that I tried it. However, after learning from one of our waiters the unique ingredient that contributes to the wine’s flavor (retsina is a white wine made with pine resin), I found myself appreciating the wine more.

As we spent most of our time at the beach, unplugged from the rest of the world, we would not have known about the many momentous events occurring around the world had I not idly turned on the TV one day.  We learned that the U.S. Supreme Court had legalized gay marriage, and also learned of the terrorist attack in Tunisia – an attack that took place at a beach that looked very similar to the one that we were visiting.  It was a surreal combination of news, one an example of a tremendous step forward in recognizing the human right to formalize an expression of love – the other demonstrating a calculated and intentional extinguishment of innocent human life. It did not escape me that only geography separated us from those who were attacked in Tunisia, and it felt strange to be following a pattern that the victims of the attack had likely expected to follow – to relax on the beach, to go for an evening stroll, to enjoy a meal with friends or family.  My heart goes out to the victims,their families and friends.

On Saturday, the day that we left Greece, we saw long lines trailing outside of every ATM. Unintentionally, we happened to visit Greece immediately prior to the expiration of the bailout program that the country has been relying on.  Upon doing a bit of research, I realized that many Greeks were attempting to withdraw as much funds as possible prior to limits being placed upon the amount of withdrawals (as of Sunday, ATM withdrawals were limited to 60 euro a day).  The prime minister of Greece is currently in tense discussions with the European Central Bank, and Macedonia has asked its banks to pull money out of Greece.

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!

A Day Trip

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:

Sveti Naum

A view inside the courtyard of the monastery at Sveti Naum.

A Sveti Naum selfie!

A Sveti Naum selfie!

A view of the monastery roof and sky.

A view of the monastery roof and sky.

Crystal clear lake water - I can't wait until it is warm enough to go swimming!

Crystal clear lake water – I can’t wait until it is warm enough to go swimming!

This little cafe is perched right on the lake (Albanian side).  What a view!

This little cafe is perched right on the lake in Pogradec (Albanian side). What a view!

This house is where the Albanian film

This house is where the Albanian film “Zonja nga Qyteti” (the woman from the city) was filmed. There is a statue of the protagonist of the film located in front of the house (not pictured). It was mobbed by school children on a school trip!

Tushemisht is a quaint village outside of Pogradec in Albania.  The houses are colorful and gardens and intricate gates abound.

Tushemisht is a quaint village outside of Pogradec in Albania. The houses are colorful and gardens and intricate gates abound.

This is a view from the tower located in the center of the Albanian city of Korca.  You can see the Resurrection Cathedral at the end of the tree lined road.

This is a view from the tower located in the center of the Albanian city of Korca. You can see the Resurrection Cathedral at the end of the tree lined road.

This is Resurrection Cathedral (formerly Saint George Cathedral).  Saint George Cathedral was destroyed by communist authorities in the 1960s.  Resurrection Cathedral was built in the 1990s where St. Cathedral once stood.

This is Resurrection Cathedral (formerly Saint George Cathedral). Saint George Cathedral was destroyed by communist authorities in the 1960s. Resurrection Cathedral was built in the 1990s where St. George Cathedral once stood.

This is a notable Albanian language school, located in Korca. It was founded in 1887 and designed to allow Albanians to be educated in their native language and to push back against the Greek and Ottoman influences in the region.

This is a notable Albanian language school, located in Korca. It was founded in 1887 and designed to allow Albanians to be educated in their native language and to push back against the Greek and Ottoman influences in the region.

An example of some beautiful architecture to be found in Korca.

An example of some of the beautiful architecture that can be found in Korca.

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.”

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.