December 30, 2007

Today's Number: 30

At six this morning (midnight EST) I woke up, my eyes opening suddenly in the darkness of our bedroom (thanks to our wooden blinds). I was momentarily confused. What was that sound? Now, if I were penning a story full of dreadfully cliche introspection about, I don't know, transition and getting older, etc, etc, I would tell you the sound I heard was a voice, over-enunciating something like, "Dan, rise with the sun and greet your thirtieth birthday! And get a haircut!"

Well, it wasn't a voice. It was church bells, the same church bells that wake us up every morning at six. Right on the dot. We have a direct line of sight from our bedroom window to the belfry and while our heavy wooden blinds, controlled by a series of pullies and canvas straps, might keep out the light, they do nothing to keep out the bells. So I was awake. And 30.

On my last day in the Land of My Twenties--where my wife still lives, incidentally, and where people do things like spend disproportionate amounts of money on clothing and alcohol and invent things like rock 'n roll--I had my butt thoroughly kicked at ping-pong by a bunch of pre-adolescents at the local rec center. I was invited there by the gym teacher at my school and thought it would a great opportunity to endear myself to the community. Well, these kids were really good, as in, they take lessons every week and can stand five feet behind the table like the guys in the Olympics and wack the ball past me at 90 kph. Because I was still in the Land of My Twenties and not yet in the far more mature Leather Swivel Office Chair of My Thirties, I responded to these fourth- and fifth-graders the best way I knew: I challenged them to a game of basketball.
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Today the weather was clear and not terribly cold, so Jillian and I visited a monastery, the most visited of the many old monasteries in Macedonia. The site dates back to the 12th-century and it is now a sprawling compound built beautifully along the side of a mountain pass. The centerpiece is the main church which features twelve cupolas and hundreds of frescoes depicting just about every character and scene from the Bible. The monastery will be a definite must-see for those of you who make it over here and we've been told that in the spring and summer it's quite stunning. Well, we were pretty impressed by what we saw today:

Visiting this picturesque locale is totally free, reminding us once again what a tourist bargain Macedonia can be. From this monastery begins a hiking trail to the top of the area's highest peak, roughly 6,500 feet. The hike is around 25-miles round trip and there is a mountain lodge near the top where hikers can stay overnight. Needless to say, we are quite excited about this adventure in the spring/summer.

As for tonight, we'll celebrate my birthday with a local dish called пасtрамајла and a (for us) expensive bottle of wine. And tomorrow I'll be 30 years old +1 day. And I certainly won't feel any different, especially when those church bells sound at 6am.

December 25, 2007

Срекен Божик!

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to everyone! I briefly considered treating this blog entry like holiday-season television: since most everyone is so busy with family and last minute shopping, it would have been either a re-run of a previous post or just a series of stills from It’s a Wonderful Life. Or maybe some video clips from a random college bowl game.

But there’s just too much new stuff to talk about.

Just over a week ago we moved into our new place in our permanent site. After all the hand-wringing over how we were going to transport our belongings from the village it turned out to be a rather painless procedure. Peace Corps had people at the major bus stations to help with luggage and emergency translations—the latter of which came in quite handy in Skopje, when our connection was not a bus, but a van with barely enough room for a few briefcases, let alone our pile of belongings. Luckily we were able to swap our ticket for one on a later bus…but how we would have done that on our own, that’s a good question.

So, about our house: We had this running joke regarding our apartment in Rhode Island last year. When the ceiling was leaking or when some strange new bug emerged from under the fridge we would say, “No matter where we live in the Peace Corps, at least it won’t be this place.” Of course, we didn’t actually think it would be better, no check that, a LOT better. Located in the center of town, our house is fantastic. It has two full baths, a spacious living room, a dining room, a washing machine (our first since we lived in Seattle), and, oh yeah, I’m posting this blog entry via the DSL line in the house.

The house has all wood floors and a distinctly mid-1970’s feel. It’s very cute. And warm. Unlike most Macedonian homes, this house has central heating. In all that luggage we were toting were two space heaters provided to us by the PC, but they’re already collecting dust in one of the spare bedrooms. Yes, spare bedrooms, which brings me to my last point. Visiting friends and family will most definitely be able to stay right here with us.

And now, the grand tour:

Welcome to the heart of the home...the kitchen

A quick left finds you in the dining room

That swingin' living room

Come on upstairs...


Nothing too special here, except the slanted-back tub

Finally, a spacious bed

The owners of the house are a very sweet married couple (neither of whom speak English) who live in another house nearby. We’ve already been over there for lunch or coffee several times and they have been extremely helpful with all our questions about the house. A couple of days ago we were there having coffee with our landlady and her elderly mother. When the баба (literally "grandmother," but in Macedonia really just a byword for an old, wise woman) had finished her coffee, she peered into the grounds at the bottom of the cup (because it’s unfiltered Turkish coffee) and began reading fortunes.

Besides settling into our new digs, Jillian and I have begun the slow process of integrating into the community. Since we are walking kind of people, we’ve been out and about every day or evening. Many people stare when we walk past, but it’s really just out of curiosity and everyone we’ve spoken with has been very friendly and positive when they learn why we are here. On Saturday I took my first trip to a Macedonian barber to get my beard trimmed. It was a bit awkward at first, but after I explained to him, “I want my beard shorter…maybe half,” everything went smoothly and according to Jillian the barber did a fine job.

We've also begun working in our schools--Jillian in the primary school, which is literally a three minute walk from our house, and I in the high school. Thus far we've mostly been meeting the kids and other teachers and explaining over and over why we are here. Again, everyone has been very positive when they learn about the PC and our role in the town. And the kids are particularly excited to learn that we have siblings in both New York and Los Angeles. For most of them, those two cites are America and they want to hear what it's like there.

Following the schools' winter break (Jan 1 - Jan 21), Jillian and I will begin some independent work, most likely in the form of an English club in which we can offer students extra help with the language in the form of more American-style strategies (games, activities, group work) which will be quite new for these kids.

We hope everyone has a very Merry Christmas. Because Macedonia practices a form of Orthodox Christianity, Christmas is celebrated later, this year on January 7th. So Jillian and I were at school today--working on Christmas!

And, of course, there won't be any Jimmy Stewart starring in It's a Wonderful Life on the tele tonight...though there will be Grey's Anatomy ("Introduction to Anatomy" here) and According to Jim ("How Jim Will Tell It").

Bye!

December 14, 2007

It's Official...We're Volunteers!

This morning came the culminating event our pre-service training, Swearing In. Held at a large banquet hall on the banks of a nearby lake, the ceremony was a really nice send off for us all before we head out to our permanent sites tomorrow morning. The U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia was there and swore us in as the twelfth group of volunteers in this country. We did the whole raising the right hand thing and solemnly swore to support and defend the constitution, etc.

After the ceremony there was a little reception, which gave us all plenty of time to take pictures with our friends and host families. Most everyone seems quite eager to move on to their new homes and most host families seem sad to be losing their volunteers. Lela and Nicola have been so good to us and made these last three months so much easier. We look forward to visiting them often in the next two years.

Tomorrow's the big move! It just so happens that tomorrow comes the first major snow of the season in Macedonia. What a scene it should be: traveling by the public buses with all our luggage (which now includes a 2-ton space heater and water distiller), arriving in our new town in the snow, seeing our apartment/house for the first time. Other than that it should be a pretty uneventful day.

With our language teacher, Alexander

Before being sworn in

Our group from the village

A couple of new volunteers

With Lela and Nicola after the ceremony

December 04, 2007

Myth or Mother Nature?

Over two thousand years after his death, Alexander the Great still carries a hefty political legacy in this part of the world. Despite the fact that he was neither Slavic, like present-day Macedonians, nor Greek, both sides claim him and he is particularly emblematic of the currently tense state of relations between the countries. Because his kingdom, Macedon, included an area encompassing both Macedonia and northern Greece (which the Greeks refer to as “Macedonia”), there’s always been a lot of historical tug o’ war. The most obvious example of this today is the dispute over Macedonia’s official name, which you can read more about here.

I bring this up because once again we were reminded of this game of keep-away with Alexander when we hiked to Devil’s Wall, near the town of Sveti Nikola (Saint Nicholas). It was an absolutely beautiful day, with temperatures pushing 60 degrees, when we set out with a group of other volunteers. The legend behind Devil’s Wall, which is located along the side of a small mountain, is that it is the remnants of a structure built by Alexander’s army to protect his treasures. Or is it simply a natural formation that lends itself to myth-making?

From a distance it didn’t look like much, but as we approached, it increasingly began to resemble a wall, constructed from separately cut stones. Plus, it stands in considerable contrast to the other surrounding rocks in both texture and color, and pretty soon we were all scratching our heads. Here’s the wall…what do you think?


Well, we won’t keep you in suspense. Luckily for us, two members of the group had asked a local museum curator and received the skinny: American and European archaeologists studied the wall during the 1960’s and determined that it is, in fact, not man-made.

The church in Sveti Nikola

Now that training is winding down, excitement and anxiety are running high as reality is setting in: we are going to be on our own soon. Language classes continue to go well, but at times we are frustrated by our language limitations. There are times when we can carry on whole conversations in Macedonian, and other times when we struggle to answer simple questions. Accents, dialects, rate and volume of speakers, new tenses, and phrasing all can stifle our attempts to communicate--not to mention the abundance of vocabulary that we have yet to learn. Next week, we have our final oral language assessment. It is basically just a conversation with one of the language teachers where he/she asks us questions in Macedonian. The object is to speak fluidly--and quantity counts. So don't be surprised if your ears are burning next week as we speak of your professions, hair color and birth places.

December 01, 2007

Giving Thanks and Laughing Out Loud

Had the captain of the Mayflower sought a shortcut to the new world by way of the Mediterranean, sailed past Italy, and then taken a right at the Adriatic, the pilgrims might have ended up in Macedonia. Luckily for those puritans—and unluckily for millions upon millions of latter day turkeys—he did not, and today very few people here understand why America celebrates Thanksgiving. Most of those who do know are probably former and present Peace Corps host families. That’s because every year PC hosts a big Thanksgiving bash for all currently serving volunteers, new trainees and their families, and staff.

This year the dinner was held in a large restaurant in our hub site, where 200+ people gathered before a stupendous spread of traditional American and Macedonian dishes. If I really strained, I could stand at one end of the tables and almost make out what food was at the other end. Making this colossal collection even more impressive was the fact that it had all been prepared by the volunteers and their families.

Thanksgiving...Macedonia style

Our village was in charge of stuffing and I have to say…really, it needs to be said…it’s only fair…being totally honest and objective…triumphant music, please…our stuffing was by far the best. Using a generic recipe, Jillian and Lela perfectly recreated that ol’ American classic with a mix of homegrown vegetables and spices and homemade bread. And what exactly did you bring to this effort, Dan? Glad you asked. While my official title was simply Supreme Grand Marshall of Taste Testing, the list of my small, invaluable contributions runs a bit long for this entry.

With the family and last year's volunteer, Patrice

After dinner came the night’s second act: presentations by each community. This was a chance for the volunteers from each site to get up in front of the entire group and perform a skit or present a slide show about their experiences together. The seven of us from the village came up with a slide show which told the story of the first Thanksgiving, but instead of the pilgrims and Indians, it was we volunteers and the people of our village. Staged pictures were included and it went over very well.

But the best part is, about five minutes before we were to present, our language coach approached Jillian and I. The plan was that I was presenting the slide show in English and he was reading the Macedonian translation. Except now he had this great idea that Jillian read the translation—never mind that she hadn’t even practiced it once and the script was way beyond anything we had studied. Extremely nervous and stressed, she went for it and did a tremendous job. The crowd was pretty much blown away when I told them the story.

One of us has it really easy...

Also on the list of memorable occasions this week was, not one, but two birthdays within our host family. Our host sister, Ana turned 14 and on the same day our host father turned (I’m sure he’d want us to say 24)...a year older. We had a little bash here at the house, featuring some excellent pizza (courtesy of Lela) and an amazing cake (courtesy of the local cake maker, who lives next door). For the celebration, Jillian handmade a sign and hung it in the living room...the family loved it. After dinner there was much pizza left over and I explained to Lela that we could eat it for breakfast, as many do in America. When there proved to be a similar amount of cake left over, I jokingly told her (I thought) that, why not, we’ll eat that for breakfast, too. Well, what do you think was on our plates the next morning? Two slices of pizza and some cake. Lela was genuinely shocked to learn that I was kidding. We’ll never forget that breakfast.

With our host sister on her birthday

Two weeks until we move to our permanent site...

November 21, 2007

Where in the World is Skopje?

As our email last week indicated, we learned the site of our home for the next two years. We also indicated that, in accordance with PC policy, we can’t name it in the blog. No matter, we’ll have lots of information and pictures forthcoming about The Place That Shall Not Be Named.

We traveled on Tuesday and spent three days and two nights at the site. In short, we had a fantastic time and are even more excited about moving there than we were when we first learned of our assignment. In terms of size, it’s really quite small, but the main street along the river still houses all the necessary resources and accommodations: restaurants, cafes, shops, a grocery store, banks, etc.

We stayed at a decidedly un-cozy spot Whose Name Shall Also Not Be Named that certainly no tourist has seen the inside of since the Reagan years. But it was centrally located and clean, so it did the trick. We met the English teachers at our schools and were thrilled to find them both energetic and excited about our arrival. Rather than the typical one counterpart that we had expected, it seems we’ll be working equally with all the English teachers as native English-speaking resources, team-teachers, and solo teachers.

While at my school, I spotted an old globe on the floor in the teacher’s lounge (where smoking is not allowed! Yay!) and picked it up. In light of recent border reorganizations, this thing was a dinosaur. The USSR, Yugoslavia, Zaire, Rhodesia, and East Germany all made an appearance (It reminded me a bit of this archaic encyclopedia set we had growing up…there was an entry titled “Negroes”). As I glanced at the Balkans, I couldn’t help but notice that Skopje didn’t make the cut. Every other capital in the region—Tirana, Belgrade, Sofia, Zagreb—was on the globe, but not Skopje. If you have a globe at home or at work, take a look…is Skopje there? Is it just the capital that time forgot or has it been regarded as simply irrelevant?

Regardless, we were in Skopje this past weekend, meeting up with other volunteers for a weekend away from the village. I’ll admit, our initial impression of Skopje a few weeks ago was not overwhelmingly positive—the city is a bit of a cracked, concrete jungle. But on this trip we saw a few things that tempered that reaction. Old Skopje, perhaps the only section of the city that survived the earthquake of 1963, is quite charming and has many boutiques and cafes. Later, after sundown, we made our way to a Turkish café with amazing atmosphere…lamp light, eastern music, and hot, spiced wine. It felt like it could be the opening sequence to the next Indiana Jones installment.

At that cozy little cafe

That night a group of approximately ten volunteers made our way to the City Stadium to catch the soccer match between Macedonia and Croatia in EuroCup competition. Croatia, another former Yugoslavian state, is one of the premier teams in the world, while Macedonia is essentially an also-ran. On top of that, Croatia had already qualified for the next round and Macedonia was out. But there’s a rivalry between these teams and this is European football we’re talking about, so all bets were off.

We were still a good quarter mile from the stadium and thirty minutes from kickoff when we heard it, at first a distant, dull roar and then, as we got closer, an unbelievable heave of sound rising into the night air. The stadium was packed and the place was going crazy. Never mind that it was in the 30’s and raining, that decrepit old football palace was rocking.

We somehow managed to find our seats (not that it really mattered, people were standing just anywhere) and paused to take in the raucous scene. The pitch turned fevered as the teams made their way out and it was pretty much mayhem from there on out. The contingent of Croatian fans was small, but yet rowdy enough to get the attention of the riot police, who stormed the stands midway through the first half. I don’t know, maybe it was those lit flares they were throwing out on to the field during play or the punches they were throwing at anyone in the general vicinity. Just a guess.

Not that Macedonian fans were sitting on their hands. When the home team scored what would prove to be the winning goal, it felt like City Stadium might topple. We were surrounded by airborne projectiles and several flares were lit in the stands as a deafening roar filled the arena. We, of course, were completely caught up in the excitement, screaming our lungs out for this huge upset in the making.

video

Video: Macedonia scores...the crowd goes bananas
(might only work with Mozilla Firefox)

The final score: Macedonia 2, Croatia 0. Frozen toes: 10. No matter, on this evening we felt like true countrymen as we threw around high-fives and cheered the night away. Still riding the high from the victory, Jillian and I made our way to another volunteer’s apartment in Skopje for the night, grabbed some late night бурек (a sort of Macedonian pizza pie, with pork and eggs) and Скопско beer and stayed up chatting with our friend until the wee hours.

November 06, 2007

Black Cats and Pig’s Blood

This week was our busiest yet. Language class is getting pretty intense (can you say direct and indirect object pronouns?) and this coming week we have a practice Language Proficiency Interview, or LPI. The LPI is the test used to determine our level of fluency at the end of training. The practice version will be a low-pressure chance for us to get a feel for how the real thing will play out. So we’ve been studying a bit more than usual, asking each other questions like, “What is your favorite color?” and” Where did you live three years ago?”

And it’s hard to believe, but we’re almost done with our faux-student teaching at the nearby schools. This past week I taught a few lessons to classes of Third Years (juniors). I don’t know who designs these textbooks, but who in god’s name would select an excerpt from Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers for intermediate English learners? So there I am, acting out this ice skating scene and trying to explain why a character would shout “Prime!” and “Capital!” in agreement.

Jillian's teaching has been going well, she's just cranking out the lessons. She'll be finishing up her stint this week with a lesson on the English pronunciation of world cities. She's been trying to incorporate more student-centered activities, including games and dialogues. This type of approach to teaching is fairly unknown in Macedonia.

On the fun side of things, we hosted a Halloween party at our house on Wednesday for all the volunteers in the village. Lela had some vague understanding of what Halloween was, but was more than happy to help with the festivities. True to the spirit of the day, costumes were a must. And true to the spirit of our host family, I dressed as a giant snail. I can’t take credit for this fabulous idea, for it was Jillian’s, as were most of the party’s particulars. Jillian dressed as a black cat and even went so far as to make king, queen, and princess crowns for Lela, Nikola, and Ana, and a sheriff’s badge for grandpa Trajko. Even better still, she made a costume for our language instructor, Aleks. And what was he on his first Halloween, surrounded by his Macedonian students? A giant English-Macedonian dictionary (речник), of course.



The whole group on Halloween

On Friday we bid adieu to the snails. Once all 60-something bags of snails had been handpicked from the garden, Lela and Nikola drove them down to Stip to sell to an Italian wholesaler. Then in the fall they'll do it all over again with hundreds of baby snails.


Snails for Sale!


The week ended with what can only be called Pig Slaughtering Weekend. The name pretty much says it all—it’s the time of year when families all across the rural parts of Macedonia are killing their pigs for the winter’s worth of pork. Lela and Nikola didn’t have any pigs, so we drove up to a nearby village and they bought one, a hearty, smelly 200-lb beast. Once back at the house, things went pretty much as you might imagine: the pig’s throat was slashed, blood went everywhere, the pig was beheaded, skinned, and gutted, and every last ounce of meat was sliced off. Years of experience made the process remarkably fast and by noon we were feasting on a lunch of fresh pork, liver, lung (I think), and their homemade wine. Photos of the pig are in our photo file on the right, perhaps a bit too graphic to post on this page. Enjoy!

On Thursday we learn where we’ll be for the next two years. Everybody has their fingers crossed in hopes of being placed in the southwest, near Ohrid, Struga, or Bitola. Based on pictures and video we’ve seen, that region of Macedonia is particularly gorgeous. But let’s face it, none of us really know much. Stay tuned…

P.S. – If any friends or family members send us care packages, there are a few items we will ALWAYS need: Glide floss (not too much floss at all in Macedonia), whitening Listerine, index cards

October 30, 2007

Field Trip!

Along with the many meetings and technical sessions scheduled during training, Peace Corps has also included a few field trips to round out our education in Macedonia. We had one such field trip this past weekend and we had a fabulous time. The first stop on our field trip was to Stobi, an ancient Roman city in southern Macedonia. The city was at the intersection of the Axiom and Vardar roads, which were the main "highways" through the Balkans leading to Constantinople and into Helios.



Today it is a major archaeological excavation site--when funding is available-- with the relics of an ancient church, a few baths, some homes, an amphitheater and a jail, in which skeletons were found still chained to the rock walls. The really amazing thing about our visit was the virtually unbridled access we had to the site. If Stobi were in Greece or Italy, it would undoubtedly be roped off and the tour carefully orchestrated. Not only is there no entrance fee at Stobi, but our group was allowed to get up close and personal with the ruins. In addition to these few pictures, there's a bunch more in our photos file on the right sidebar.

From the ancient wonder of Stobi our group proceeded south the Demir Kapija in the heart of Macedonia's burgeoning wine country. We visited a new winery perched atop a hill with a beautiful view of the town and surrounding rocky peaks. Those peaks actually serve as a barrier between the Mediterranean climate of Greece and the continental climate of the Balkans, so Demir Kapija gets a pretty interesting mix of weather, depending upon which system is more dominant. As Macedonia approaches EU membership, much of its economic hopes rest on tourism--along with its natural beauty and history (e.g. Stobi), Macedonia is looking to be Europe's next big wine producer. With that in mind, many of the wineries are renovating in an effort to be a real destination, complete with hotels and restaurants. Still, by American standards, the wine is very inexpensive and quite good...so friends and family, when you visit us here, you can be sure Macedonian wine will be on the itinerary!

There's Two Happy Sox Fans in Macedonia

This just about says it all. Here's to wishing we could watch the victory parade on NESN....

October 24, 2007

On the Train to Skopje

It just so happens that our tiny village lies on one of Macedonia’s main train routes. As the track twists and turns its way through the countryside, it passes over the hill overlooking our placid село. This came in quite handy on Saturday when all seven of us made our way to Skopje for Field Day, a chance for currently serving volunteers to get together with the new group and bond over events like ultimate Frisbee and leg wrestling (I’ll explain). The 82-kilometer journey was a cinch, even if the train was thirty minutes late.

Sharing a cabin with four, ракија-sipping Macedonians, Jillian and I took in the scenery while listening to Bob Dylan—not only are his rambling songs perfect for a train ride, but I believe he’s the only artist on our iPod who’s older than that train. Talk about a blast from the Yugoslavian past. It was fantastic.

The actual event was held at a school across the street from the American Embassy. It’s not too far from the train station, so I can’t say that we saw a whole lot of Skopje. What we did see only reinforced the notion that the 1960’s was a bleak decade for architecture. Apparently there was a sizable earthquake in 1963 that leveled a good part of Skopje, including most of the old buildings. As in America, the structures that sprung up in the years that followed are like monuments to the cement industry. According to volunteers we met at Field Day, Skopje has a city center where some of the older buildings remain, so hopefully we can check that out at a later date.

We spent the day socializing with volunteers who have been in Macedonia for one or two years (the latter are set to head back home in about a month) and improvising some friendly competition, since the original plan for the day called for us to be outside. The highlight was no doubt leg wrestling, a, ummm, sport, I had not previously had the privilege of witnessing. It basically consists of two contestants lying down next to each other in opposite directions, each trying to flip the other one over by leveraging his/her leg.

The point here is that Jillian dominated the proceedings, culminating in a hilarious victory over a guy who easily outweighed her twice over. The crowd went wild; he turned crimson. It seemed for a second that Jillian might get carried out of building on the crowd’s shoulders. Ru-dy! Ru-dy! Pictures are forthcoming, I promise...

The weather cleared later and a group of us got in some rousing games of ultimate Frisbee. In fact, with the weather turning sunny, everyone went outside and forgot to place bids in the silent auctioning of stuff the departing volunteers no longer wanted. As a result, my meager bid (120 MKD or $2.75) on the first two seasons of Lost on DVD went uncontested. Woo-hoo!

At the bar after Field Day

Jillian with another volunteer, Erin

After a fun few hours at a Skopje bar with all the volunteers (we basically took the place over), we exhausted seven from the village caught the night train back. As the train moved through the darkness and the on-again rain, someone said, “I can’t wait to get home.” It might have caught us all a little by surprise to find that phrase sounded just about right.

Snow in the hills surrounding the village

October 19, 2007

A Nation in Mourning

This week we were witness to a truly modern Macedonian cultural happening. Toshe Proeski, a young music star and by all accounts great guy, died in a car accident in Croatia at the age of 26. Toshe, as he is known around the Balkans, was a local boy made good, born to very humble origins in a southern Macedonian village and his death is being viewed as nothing short of national tragedy. In addition to being a very popular musician around Europe—he sang with the likes of Pavarotti and Elton John and had a slew of hit songs—he was a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and was known equally for his work on the behalf of children living in poverty and those with disabilities. Just over a week ago he held a benefit concert in Skopje for Macedonian schools. He was introduced at the show by the U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia, Gillian Milovanovich.

It’s really something to see such a national outpouring for a celebrity. Many people, including teachers at our practicum schools, were visibly upset and there were many crying faces at a small candlelight vigil in our village’s square. For a small, struggling nation like this one, what Toshe represented is almost impossible to quantify: a new, young, European Macedonia that doesn’t forget its origins but isn’t hobbled by its past. This sentiment is surely lost in translation to American culture, where there is such an embarrassment of celebrity riches that the death of a single star could never produce such a flood of public emotion. Here, meanwhile, the president and prime minister led a ceremony in honor of Toshe and declared the day after his death a national day of mourning. For a lot of Macedonians it seems fair to say that Toshe meant a great deal more than any political figure ever could.


Our village from afar

In other news, tomorrow is the annual Field Day for all Macedonian volunteers, which basically means a day of friendly competition and a chance for us to meet the volunteers who have been here one and two years. The event was supposed to be in a village near our own, but the forecast is calling for highs in the 30s and rain, so it’s been moved to Skopje, the capital. This will be our first time visiting Macedonia’s largest city (approx. 700,000 people) and should make for an interesting comparison to the village life we’ve seen thus far. Hopefully we’ll have some pictures next time…

This week has seen some real progress on the language front. Just today, for instance, we learned the future tense. This opens up a whole new world of opportunity when speaking at home and takes much of the caveman out of our communication with Lela. “Later I walk school” has just recently turned into “At three o’clock I will walk to school.” Still, Lela is well versed in the art of speaking to PC volunteers (and, not coincidentally, Macedonian 3-year olds) and it’s quite a shock to be peppered with questions from random villagers at full conversational speed. But it’s coming along.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that we played in our first football (soccer) game with the local team here yesterday. Jillian’s cleats arrived just in time (thanks, mom and dad!) and we walked down to the field for a pickup game. Another volunteer, Vince, and I were thoroughly embarrassing out there and I’m quite certain we won’t be invited back. Jillian, on the other hand, wowed those guys and was throwing around high-fives left and right after her many goals.

ЧАО! (goodbye!)


The surrounding area...very much like San Diego County

October 16, 2007

Summer is Over

Another week has passed here in Macedonia. We’ve encountered our first stretch of rainy, cool weather. The temperature has been steady in the 60s and very damp. Most of the streets in our village are paved or cobbled, but we live on one that isn’t and it’s been a real mudfest coming and going from the house. Worse yet for our family, snails positively love the rain and are extremely active in this kind of weather. That means every morning Lela and Trajko (and us, when there’s no school) are out collecting all the snails that have escaped from their pen during the night. You’d be surprised how much ground a snail can cover when it really puts its microscopic mind to it.

Our schedule is really starting to fill up. In addition to our daily language classes, we are now taking trips twice a week to the nearby city for our teaching practicum (sort of a truncated student teaching gig). Jillian is at a K-8 school and will be teaching classes of fifth and seventh graders, who already speak pretty solid English. The periods are relatively short, only 45 minutes, so creating fully developed lessons within that time may be difficult. Jillian co-taught two lessons today on descriptions of personal characteristics and will be solo teaching tomorrow on superlatives. Apparently one of their recent lessons in the workbook concerned a fictional American from San Diego, so the kids were pretty excited to hear that this real life American comes from the same place.

As for me, I’m in the vocational high school, which is about a fifteen minute walk from Jillian’s school. My counterpart is a young Macedonian teacher whose students speak English at a relatively low level. As she explained to me, most of the English they know comes from American music, and even then they don’t really know what it means. This is fairly common in Macedonia: young people receive most of their knowledge about America from some really stellar sources, like trashy music and bad movies. On a few occasions we’ve had kids shout things like, “Hey America, f—k you,” while waving eagerly and smiling from ear to ear. They’re saying this because they think that’s what is cool in the States or that’s what young Americans say—they’re not trying to offend.

The fields on the outskirts of the village

The kids in our village are really great, always willing to converse with our limited skills or hoping to take a picture of us with their camera phones. Even though we volunteers are not really much of a novelty, we’re still fairly exotic. I played a fun game of street soccer with some boys last week—they were pretty amused that I was playing with them (or maybe just laughing at my soccer skills; they’re worse than my Macedonian). We were down at the field earlier in the week and Jillian was taking some shots on goal with the boys. Now this was a novelty. The guys (and it’s all guys, there isn’t a single girl on the field) couldn’t quite seem to grasp Jillian’s abilities. At first they rolled the ball to me, assuming that I was the player. But after Jillian took a few shots, they were visibly quite stunned and repeatedly passed it back to her, long after she was tired of shooting. When the weather dries out we hope to get back down to the field and play in some pickup games.

In the coming weeks we will be learning what our permanent village or city will be for the remaining two years. This is understandably a revelation shrouded in much anticipation and discussion.

October 09, 2007

Weekend In The Village

A view of our village

Our first weekend in the village was a fun and relaxing one. It’s currently ајвар (pronounced I-var) season in Macedonia and virtually every family around is busy making the stuff. Ајвар is a sort of paste or spread that is served on bread or anything really. It’s made from peeled, roasted red peppers (ensuring maximum calories, minimum nutrition), an assortment of spices, and oil. Most families have their own special ingredients they add to the ајвар, such as roasted eggplant, tomatoes, chilies, or carrots. It tastes delicious with feta. We helped our host mother make ајвар and several other traditional Macedonian sauces usually canned for the winter months when fresh vegetables are scarce. We haven’t helped bake bread yet; I think we have to establish our competency with simpler tasks first. They have a brick hut oven in the backyard where Lela bakes all their bread from scratch. She also makes her own pasta…I’m not sure if she actually buys groceries.

Jillian helps out with the special sauce


Let the fermenting begin!

While Lela is busy making Martha Stewart look like Archie Bunker, Nicola is in the garage fermenting vats of his own wine. The whole process takes a few months, but starts with Nicola and Traiko picking grapes from their yard and putting them in large barrels that they occasionally check-up on and stir. The wine eventually has the color of a rose’ and the flavor of a crisp, light white wine--it is quite delicious. They also ferment their own ракиа (pronounced RAK-ee-a), another alcohol made from grapes. It smells like pure alcohol and tastes like fire. The men of Macedonia take pride in fermenting the strongest ракиа and drink small amounts with meals and on special occasions. We’ll stick to the wine.

Sunday was football day in the village. By football, of course, I mean soccer. It seemed like the entire population was out, crowded up on a hill overlooking the field where the village’s team was doing battle with the team from another town. It was a classic small-town social event: a few diehard fans (like Nicola) followed every play with much intensity, teenagers gaggled and were generally loud, and the old men waxed about this or that with occasional breaks to throw a dirty look at the kids.


The village church

The people of the village have been extremely friendly to all seven of us volunteers. This is the fourth straight year Peace Corps has been here, so most people are pretty used to having Americans around for a few months. Most curiosity comes from the very small children who perhaps don’t remember past volunteers.

We’ll sign off with the traditional Macedonian toast: Ноздравије!


One of the ubiquitous signs for Скопско, a local beer

October 05, 2007

Life on the Snail Farm

Sorry about the delay in posting, but our village has no internet access. So expect only intermittent updates for the next ten weeks or so. We just got our first taste of Macedonian public transportation, catching the bus from our village to the nearby city to get some online time. The bus was 30 minutes late and the twenty-minute journey over the narrow country roads was more than a bit harrowing.

So...

Life with our host family got off to a surprisingly smooth start. All week long we had been told of the stress, chaos, and awkwardness that come with meeting the host family. Then on the actual day of the introduction—which took place at a small ceremony that featured traditional Macedonian dancing with our host families—everyone was given a passcode of sorts. It was a phrase that we would use to locate our family amidst the swirling crowd of strangers.

Ours read: Lela farms snails.

This is a true statement. Our host mother, Lela, raises snails in two long gardens along the side of their home. The house is in a small village of around 2,000 people where, quite literally, everybody knows everybody. Lela, her husband Nicola, and their daughter Ana, live in what I can only describe as a picturesque Mediterranean villa sitting on roughly 10 acres of gorgeous land. A canopy of grape vines covers the front patio and within ten minutes of arriving at their home we were seated under said canopy, enjoying Turkish coffee. Around their home they grow apples, pears, grapes, melons, tomatoes, peppers of several varieties, eggplant, cabbage, spinach, and walnuts.



Welcome to a life of roughing it...

When Nicola pulled the family’s VW up in front of the house, Jillian and I experienced something like the sensation of discovering a 500-dollar bill between the cushions of your couch. You’ll wonder if the bill is real, if someone’s playing a practical joke on you, and consider if it’s even your couch to begin with before you’ll accept the good fortune. Suffice to say that this is not exactly what most people envision when they hear the words "Peace Corps."

The backyard...

Even more beautiful than the home in which we now find ourselves occupying a small bedroom is the family with whom we now live. Lela and Nicola have warmly welcomed us into their home and we have had a wonderful time getting to know them. Even with our limited language skills we are still able to communicate quite effectively through pantomime, expressive facial contortions and our precious речник (pronounced rechnik), or dictionary.


Lela and Jillian enjoying afternoon coffee on the patio.

Life on the snail farm so far has been incredible. We wake up in the morning around 7:00 to the smell of Turkish coffee and појадок (pronounced poyadoke), or breakfast. Our host grandfather, Treiko, has already been working in the garden for a few hours, and our host father is usually working on his heavy construction truck which just finished a major project in Macedonia. Our host sister goes to school about the same time we do, so she's getting ready too.

We have language classes everyday for 4 hours, though it's fair to say that most of our best language learning comes at home. There are five other volunteers in our village and we've had some great times already just figuring things out. Our instructor, Alexander, is from Macedonia and has been teaching Macedonian to Peace Corps volunteers for 4 years. He is an excellent teacher and we are learning a lot from his example about instructional methods for teaching a foreign language.

In the afternoon a few days a week we have technical classes. These are basically methods classes for teaching English as a foreign language. We will also have a practicum twice a week starting on Tuesday in a nearby school. We will observe our cooperating teacher, co-teach several lessons and solo teach several lessons. Macedonian schools are eager to implement more modern teaching strategies for English classes.

Well, there's only about a thousand more things we'd like to add--we'll do our best to keep this updated. Be sure to check out the "Our Photos" link in the right column.

September 29, 2007

Our Peace Corps Application Timeline

When we were in the application (AKA, hurry up and wait) process of becoming Peace Corps Volunteers, we found peoples' personal blogs and accounts of their experiences invaluable. We would check and double check to compare and see if our nomination, clearances and invitations were coming slowly or quickly. We wanted to know what to expect and when, particularly because as a couple the process seems to vary slightly from that of single applicants. So, in hopes to help other current applicants and future Peace Corps volunteers, here is our timeline:

Mar. 30, 2005: Attended recruiting event.

Apr. 15, 2006: Started on-line application.

May 1, 2006: Submitted on-line application.

May 7, 2006: Received reference kit in the mail.

May 14, 2006: Completed and sent in reference kit.

May 17, 2006: Contacted by recruiter to schedule interview.

May 18, 2006: Recruiter received completed reference kit materials.

May 22, 2006: Scheduled interview for July date.

Jul. 25, 2006: Interviewed with recruiter at regional headquarters.

Aug. 16, 2006: Contacted by recruiter to discuss possible nomination.

Aug. 18, 2006: Nominated- TEFL, Sept. 07, Eastern Europe.

Sep. 5, 2006: Received medical & dental kit.

Sep. 27, 2006: Submitted medical & dental kit.

Oct. 16, 2006: Dan- dental clearance; Jillian- legal clearance.

Oct. 27, 2006: Dan- legal clearance; Jillian- dental hold until braces removed.

Nov. 1, 2006: PC Requested additional medical information from Dan & Jillian.

Nov. 10, 2006: Submitted additional medical information.

Jan. 8, 2006: Called Headquarters to inquire about receipt of additional medical info.

Jan. 10, 2006: Resubmitted additional medical information.

Jan. 19, 2007: Dan & Jillian- medical clearance.

Mar. 19, 2007: Placement office requested fax of teaching certifications.

Mar. 20, 2007: Faxed teaching certifications.

May 6, 2007: Toolkit status changed to Invitee.

May 18, 2007: Invitation to serve in Macedonia!

May 22, 2007: Accepted Invitation.

May 28, 2007: Submitted updated resumes and aspiration statements.

Jun. 25, 2007: Submitted application for no fee passports.

Aug. 1, 2007: Jillian- braces removed, dental clearance.

Sep. 5, 2007: Received staging kit.

Sep. 20, 2007: Departed for Staging in Washington D.C.

Sep. 24, 2007: Departed for Macedonia.

September 28, 2007

Zdravo!

Hello!
Our first week of language, culture and technical training has been amazing to say the least. Although we are exhausted and fatigued from all the stimulation, we are still excited to be here. This post is just a recap of all we have been doing so far:
Language & Culture Training- PC uses an incredible method for teaching language. Our first introduction to the language consisted of basic greetings using a listen and repeat method. And by repeat, I mean repeat a billion times. The Language Facilitators are so patient and supportive that it doesn't even feel like a language class. Another benefit to this approach and environment is that everything you learn you are able to try out immediately with native speakers. We had our first successful conversation in Macedonian today. It went something like this.

Me: Good evening.
Macedonian Lady: Good Evening.
Me: How are you?
Lady: Good, and you?
Me: I am good.
Lady: (silence)
Me: Goodbye!
Lady: Goodbye.

Not bad, huh? Oh, and Dan successfully ordered a bottle of beer completely in Macedonian.
Technical Training- This week was an introduction to what we will be doing as Secondary and Primary English Language Resource Teachers. During our 3 month training period we will learn more about the duties of that position and the methodologies of teaching English as a Foreign Language. It sounds like every site is very unique and that the duties can vary greatly between sites. So, a definitive all encompassing description of the job may have to wait.

Currently, all the trainees are staying at a central "hub" site, but during the remainder of training we will be in smaller "satellite" sites. Tomorrow we will find out our satellite site and therefore will be meeting our host family as well. We are very excited about this and looking forward to a more permanent place to stay. We will try to keep everyone posted as to what we are doing, but it is uncertain if we will have regular internet access. One possible site is rural and has no internet, while the other is more urban and does have internet. We'll find out tomorrow. Until then, Dobra Noch!



Hiking above our training city

September 25, 2007

We're Finally Here!

We’ve just only wrapped up our first full day in Macedonia and there’s so much to say. The lot of us arrived bleary eyed but pretty much exited out of our minds at the Skopje airport on Monday afternoon. We all piled into a bus and rode down to our training site. Jillian remarked the whole way, “It looks like southern California.” Completely true. The landscape was very dry with small brush, few trees, and small, rolling hills.

We arrived at the hotel in our training site, delighted to be at rest for at least the next week. Within the first hour or so, Jillian and I had managed to blow out our surge protector. Forgetting it didn’t convert the electricity, I plugged it into the wall and pressed, “reset.” There was a pop, the smell of burning hardware, and my arm tingled for roughly 30 minutes. The rest of the night was much more relaxing, featuring traditional Macedonian food and some local wine ($2 a bottle!), and we slept hard, awaking this morning to a full schedule that included a Macedonian dance troupe, our first language lesson (basic greetings, etc) and a scavenger hunt through the city.

The next few days will be more introductions to basic customs and conversation and on Saturday we finally meet (cue: dramatic music) our host families. We’re looking forward to trying out our new language skills on the local Macedonians, who seem to be very friendly and eager to help us as we slosh through basic phrases.


What else would they name the airport?

More pics to come, but the connection is bad...

September 24, 2007

En Route

It might feel like 3am to the forty of us, but the Vienna airport is all hustle and bustle this morning. This is easily one of the smallest terminals I have ever seen--there's basically two shops, one restaurant, and about ten gates. Oh yeah, we have a five hour layover. To make matters worse, there isn't an inch of rug in the whole terminal; it'd basically be like trying to take a nap at a museum. So we're sitting, enjoying free WiFi, watching movies on laptops with rapidly-depleting batteries (why did I pack my adapter??), and generally just shooting the shit and anticipating our arrival in Skopje. Here's my first attempt at using this laptop's Webcam:

video

The flight over from D.C. was pretty bearable, mostly due to the free wine and an ample supply of Tylenol PM. I was sitting next to an older woman I believe was from Slovakia. She didn't speak a word of English and was the archetype (or maybe just stereotype) of the hardened Soviet female. In short, what a traveling companion!

On the otherhand, the other 41 members of this Peace Corps caravan are a great bunch to be traveling with. Our couple of days in D.C. were quite succesful, both imformative and socially rewarding. Everything we've been evenly remotely anxious about (baggage weight, e.g.) instantly became much easier to deal with once we were standing in a crowd people feeling the same thing. Besides Jillian and I, there is another maried couple--same age as us and from Rhode Island. Most of group is recent college grads and some late 20-somethings.

Jillian, bless her good fortune, was able to sleep for about half the flight, but she did miss breakfast, so we're off for a crossaint and coffee.

Schuss!

September 19, 2007

Last Day in the States

I remember filling out that initial Peace Corps application like it was a year ago. Well, it was actually one-and-a-half years ago--you know what they say, time flies.


So it finally comes down to our last day. Jillian turned in an epic performance with the suitcases. If there's a PC Macedonia award for Best Packed Volunteer (Couples Category), we are clearly the early favorites. In a shrink-wrap tour de force, Jillian transformed an unsightly pile of wrinkled clothing into a highly compartmentalized package. It's as if she put a bomb back together after it had gone off:


I know what you're thinking:
Are Jillian and Dan taking the space shuttle to Macedonia?

Yesterday we sold our last remaining major possession--the Honda. The buyer was an 18-year old girl who didn't seem too impressed by the car's fine condition, low price, and cleanliness and nearly balked at the deal because the car doesn't have rear speakers. She informed me that she would be installing a sub-woofer in the trunk (which is really roomy!), and, like, what happened to those rear speakers. Like, did I blow them out or something?

It was about at this point that her parents stepped in and talked some sense into her and so last night she drove off with arguably our last connection to the adult world. No sooner had those tail lights faded than Jillian and I took stock of our surrounding possessions and announced, "We're kids again." Except most kids have more gadgets than us.

So that's it: our bags are packed, we have no car and there's little left to do but sit around and get overly sentimental about our country and the greater Bangor area. We heard an ad on the radio yesterday: "If you've never been to Barnaby's, you're missing out!" Barnaby's is a depressing spot out by the airport frequented by the sorts of people last seen in Billy Joel's "Piano Man." But for a split second, I actually thought, You know, I never did make it out to Barnaby's. And it made me a little sad. And then I slapped myself across the face.

In some ways I'm reminded of our final hour in Seattle: we had some extra time walking back from breakfast and so we detoured a bit through downtown. Seattle was a city we had truly loved living in and watching the traffic and people move about the wide avenues on what was a sunny, warm day, I was struck by the feelings of departure. The transition felt so vivid--unlike past and future moves that really just felt like a pain in the ass.

That vividness is now returning, except this time it's so shrouded in anticipation and nervousness that it's hard tell what we're feeling. Even though today is not technically our last day in the country (we do have staging in D.C. this weekend), when the plane lifts off tomorrow at 6:45am, all of this is going to seem about four thousand miles away.

I will say this, though: you just can't beat the peace of mind you get living in or around Bangor. We can only hope Macedonia has such strict laws:

September 15, 2007

Runnin' in the Rain

Today marked the last Official Event before our departure on Friday. This morning, in and around rain-drenched Bar Harbor, we ran the Mount Desert Island Half-Marathon. When I say drenched, I mean of the soggy-shirt, squishy-shoe variety. This past week was nothing but sunshine and perfect early-fall weather. Ditto for the long range forecast. Except for today, one of those headlights-and-wipers-on-all-day deal.


So, lucky us and the other 300-odd runners. The race--the only half marathon in the country that winds through a national park--moved along Acadia's carriage trails (which were built as just that, paths for the rich to take their horse-and-buggies out) and finished in Bar Harbor.


Jillian at mile 5, waving to her devoted fans


Right after I finished. Dad puts his arm around me to pose, only to discover
my shirt was a disgusting, swampy mess.



30 seconds after Jillian finished, 10 seconds before we dashed off for a hot shower.

For the record:
Dan -- 1:31:19 (third in my age group!)
Jillian -- 1:50:10 (just missed placing in her age group, came in fourth)

And more importantly: 120 hours until we're out of here. No more Official Events left, time to start packing.