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.


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.