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.
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").


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...