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: 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