December 31, 2008

'Twas the Night Before 2009

Today should have been a great day. It's New Year's Eve and our little town is feeling quite festive. The streets are decorated with lights. I could hear a band playing all afternoon, the Macedonian turbo-folk sounds drifting up from the city center. Our local market was just swarmed with revelers stocking up and everywhere we go we run into someone asking about plans for tonight. In short, this is a big holiday.

This morning Jillian and I went over to the kindergarten for a little celebration with the kids. With Safet we laid out a nice spread for them to munch on as the anticipation of Santa Claus' arrival built. Those kids weren't the only anxious ones--as I mentioned last time, Safet told me I should play the part of Santa; I demurred, but he insisted. It became clear yesterday that he had no backup plan and so this morning there I was, climbing into the lamest Santa suit I'd ever seen. When I had finished assembling this thing, I more closely resembled a member of a hazmat team, as if the elves were making the toys with lead paint and there was a spill in the workshop.

Who loves you more than Santa?

There was a package for each child and I gathered a few of them under my arms and stood outside the door to the classroom, listening to Safet tell the kids that he heard Santa arriving in his helicopter. Then I made my grand entrance, let rip a few obligitory ho, ho, hoes, and sat down on the teacher's swivel chair to hand out gifts. Much to my relief, the younger children (2 and 3 years old) really believed they were seeing Santa and crowded around, joyously yelling out for me and my packages. The four-year olds? Not fooled for even a second. One little boy in particular seemed to examine me with pity, as if to say, "Wow, Safet made you wear that?"

One by one the children came forth for their packages, sitting on my lap next to the Christmas tree for a picture. I tried to talk in a deeper, more grandfatherly voice, using a few basic Macedonian phrases. But inevitably I had to break character to say something like, "Mane, wait your turn!" or "Fernando, don't touch the tree!" In other words, this was a professional job from top to bottom.

Then Santa departed to the waves and cheers of the little ones. It was just in time, really, I was sweating quite profusely in my winter coat and vest under the costume and the fake beard was agitating my real one (which could be clearly seen, by the way). The kids gobbled up the rest of their food, a group picture was more or less taken and the parents shuttled the children away and left us to clean up the plates and forks and cups. And then things went south.

The kids gather 'round

Fica takes her turn on Santa's lap

The kids wave Santa a fond farewell

So this Roma youth center is operated by Safet and we have come to see over the last few months that while he recognizes many of the ills that dog his community and that while his heart is in the right place, Safet is amazingly stubborn and self-righteous. These qualities manifest in all sorts of situations, but the one that is particularly frustrating and (on this day) hurtful is his complete unwillingness to work with ethnic Macedonians. He is utterly convinced that all Macedonians are bad people who only wish the worst for the Roma community. I regret to report that this sentiment towards the Roma is quite common here, but Safet is way off the mark with his generalization.

Exhibit A: Tina. We have been helping Tina with her college applications and we have come be good friends with her. Not surprisingly, as she tends to have a much wider world view than most people in this town, Tina volunteered to join us at the center. This is a perfect idea--she's great with kids, she can work with them to improve their Macedonian language skills (which is so essential if they are to succeed) and she can translate for us in our conversations with Safet. She's been coming for about a week and the kids just love her. Safet has been regarding her with suspicious acceptance...until today.

As we all sat together eating the remains of kids' snacks and talking about the future, Safet launched into one of his tirades about discrimination and how he is the only person willing to challenge it, etc. This speech, which we've heard three dozen times, really grates us because while Safet professes to want different ethnic groups to come together to defeat the discrimination, he also takes this ridiculous pride in going it alone and not welcoming anyone into his project (we're exempt, somehow, because we're Americans).

Inevitably and unfortunately, the conversation turned to Tina, who did an admirable job of arguing to Safet that there are young Macedonians like herself who recognize the issues and prejudices facing the Roma and who are willing to help. I mean, for god's sake, we didn't drag Tina to the center at gunpoint! Not good enough for Safet, who took this opportunity to look past present evidence, condemn all Macedonians, accuse Tina of having ulterior motives and informing her in no uncertain terms that she's not welcome there anymore.

So Tina was in tears and Jillian and I were way beyond angry. His callousness was unlike anything I've ever seen and it really called into question just what kind of person Safet is and what kind of project he's running here. Inclusion? Looks increasingly to me like Safet is actively working to reinforce the exclusion and marginalization of the Roma, even if unintentionally.

Well, that put a real damper on the day. Poor Tina, a 17-year old wunderkind of social awareness, just had to learn the hard (and personal) way that altruism isn't always recognized as such. If Safet is truly going to succeed and expand, as he plans to, he will need young Macedonians like Tina and her friends to join in and lend a hand. And our relationship with Safet certainly has just been altered. This center, and our work there, is supposed to be about the children, who we really adore, but this rather serious roadblock has emerged. Worst of all, Safet seemed utterly oblivious to the gravity of his actions and how mad he made us. A change is going to come, that much is certain...we'll keep you posted.

Happy New Year! (and lots more pictures from the Roma center, including some sweet Santa pics, are available by clicking on Our Photos on the right sidebar)

December 25, 2008


Cliche Advisory: The following blog post contains phrases such as "the greatest gift of all," "the season of giving," "it's the most wonderful time of the year" and "tis the season."

This time last year, Jillian and I were quite amused at our situation: a normal day of work. We had arrived to our town only ten days previous and were still in the early stages of finding our way around and getting to know our schools. I distinctly remember I was sitting in the teacher's room between classes when the cell phone rang--it was Jillian's sister Alex in New York, calling to wish us a merry Christmas. Wow, it certainly didn't feel like the holidays. No decorations in the windows of houses, no Mariah Carey Christmas collection on repeat in the stores, no Salvation Army bells. But I guess that made it easier for us; since it didn't really feel like the most wonderful time of the year, we didn't miss it so much.

Today, one year later, I was back at the high school. Today, one year later, Alex played a significant part in my Christmas. That's where the similarities really end--while last year was newness and confusions, this year proved to be one of the most satisfying holidays I can remember. Jillian and I spent this morning at the Roma kindergarten and, thanks in large part to Alex and Jillian's mom, these less fortunate kids had a really great Christmas. [I should add here that Christmas in Macedonia is celebrated according to the Orthodox calendar on January 7, but the kindergarten's director, Safet, insisted that we have a "western" holiday.]

The morning began with the little ones watching a video of Santa's visit last year. They loved it. By the way, in Macedonia Santa goes by the name Dedo Mraz, or literally, Grandfather Ice, and he comes on New Year's Eve, not Christmas (this came about as a way to get around communism's unofficial ban on Christmas). Anyway, the toddlers are getting very excited about Santa's impending trip to their town--this building euphoria is particularly sweet and sad amongst these children, some of whom don't own a single toy (wow, it's hard for me to even type that). Safet made some passing remarks today about his wanting me to serve in the role of Santa this year, but I tend to believe that any Santa worth his salt should have a BMI above 20. Good lord, I need to find someone else, lest these kids think Santa has one hell of tape worm.

Santa may be a few days off, but today proved that Christmas can truly be the season of giving. Jillian's sister and mom mailed 24 brand new winter coats, along with some hats and mittens and they arrived just in time. Along with some donated clothes and stuffed animals that Safet had at the center, we were able to give each child a really nice package today. The coats fit perfectly and the little ones looked absolutely adorable in their new, warm digs. Honestly, the kids really loved the stuffed animal and chocolate bar that came in their package, but their parents sure appreciated the coats and clothing.

Later at the high school, the teachers all wished me a merry Christmas and asked if Jillian and I would be celebrating tonight. Turns out we just ate a pizza and drank some Serbian beer, Jelen (pronounced "yellin'"). But who needs a traditional Christmas when you can sit back and bask in the afterglow of making some sweet little kids happy. 'Tis the season.

**Read more about the Roma of Eastern Europe in this article from The Economist

With Aileen and Daryan

Jillian with Feadora and her new stuff

Nafia just loved her new coat...she gave Jillian a big kiss

December 18, 2008


Increasingly feeling like this is where our energy is best put into action, Jillian and I have been spending more time at the Roma kindergarten these last few weeks. I wrote about this in some detail back in October--the Roma community in our town lives in squalor and is severely undereducated. Like many Roma communities throughout Europe, they face discrimination and suspicion. The kindergarten, operated by a one-man NGO, Safet, is an essential resource for these small children; if anything, it should be greatly expanded.

Recently Jillian has begun work on a grant to help with just that. [If nothing else, Jillian will leave the Peace Corps with some serious grant writing chops. She's already written two major grants and this one will be her third. She's got a real knack for organizational writing.] Our idea in writing the grant, in consultation with Safet, is to not only increase the number of children served at the kindergarten, but also to hold staff training for Safet and his assistant, organize parent information sessions, create a Saturday morning homework support program for those few Roma children enrolled in the public schools, develop a food bank at the center and purchase much-needed school supplies for the children as they enter the integrated public schools in first grade. It's a major project, one that we feel would be best served by having a PCV placed with Safet's organization next year.

Aside from logistics, it has been a real joy going to the kindergarten and working with the children. Recently the addition of a new little girl at the center has forced us to reconsider someone. The little girl's name is Nafia and her mother begs, usually outside our neighborhood market. From my vantage point the only thing this seems to accomplish is making the Roma community look bad (I realize she and her family live in abhorrent conditions and that state social services provide only token financial support...but still, she's the only Roma who begs and her brusque manner is completely off-putting). Kids in tow, this woman stalks customers as they exit the store. In our first few months in town we had some choice encounters with this woman, including the occasion in which she spit on me. What I've always found depressing about the woman, really, has been the manner in which she includes her children in this endeavor.

Then she brought her children to the center. Only Nafia is age-appropriate, but Safet allowed a younger and older child to attend for a couple of days as well. Simply put, these are the sweetest, nicest, most well-behaved children we've met at the center. Many of the little ones at the kindergarten are, well, brats, thanks to little in the way of supervision or parental education. A few of them simply scream at the top of their lungs when they're not getting their way, while others react with punches and kicks at anyone, everyone.

Nafia and her siblings, on the other hand, are miren, as Safet repeatedly tells us. Peaceful. Their interactions with each other are supportive and loving. Nafia never has to be told twice to put away a toy, wash her hands or move to the tiny tables for drawing time. And when the other kids in her group are howling like banshees and running around like chickens without heads, she sits quietly.

And so I look at her mother a little differently now. Maybe it's not fair, but I asked myself, incredulously, "These are her kids?" Now when we pass her outside the market she doesn't ask for money, but instead she asks when we'll be going back to the kindergarten. And sometimes Nafia is with her and she always runs over to us, smiles and says hello.

December 11, 2008

The Woodsman

Let me paint a terrifying scene for my American readers: you are in the living room with your family--spouse, kids--and some extended family, such your mother and father, or perhaps your in-laws. It's winter and the stove is burning hot. The kids are jockeying for a place directly in front of the fire and your mother-in-law just turned up the TV again. The living room opens up into the kitchen and you make your way in there to start dinner. There's a dining table in between with six places set. Except for when you sleep, the family will spend all its time in this room. Only. All winter.

That scene is best pictured in black-and-white, which is always how infomercials depict life before their product. The product missing here is privacy, something we Americans cherish, even within the confines of our family. Or should I say especially within those confines. "Wouldn't you like to get away?" asked the theme song to Cheers. Americans relish the ability to get the hell away from everyone else from time to time, even if it's just to another room for some quiet reading. We like our space.

Well, electricity is laughably expensive in Macedonia when compared to average earnings (I think this is due to the fact that Macedonian produces very little of its own and imports most from neighboring countries) and homes are not heated with oil or natural gas. So the stove takes on enormous importance. In every house it sits like a mute family member in a place of strategic importance, such as near the TV. Sure, it lies dormant for seven or eight months of the year, but once it comes on it gets swarmed like a guy who just won the lottery. And there's typically only one in the house, though there may be a separate cooking stove as well. As the bedrooms go frozen (and I mean this nearly literally...we slept in a bedroom at our host family's last winter in which the temperature was 39), only the main room is heated. And so it's the center of family life for the winter season.

All of this means that wood takes on great importance this time of year. Throughout the fall two distinct sounds could be heard: the chopping of wood and the sawing of wood. The first is pretty standard, but the second bears description. I clearly remember the "wood guy" coming to our house in Maine during my childhood, dropping off a couple cords of cut wood and departing on his way. Sure, we had to stack all this wood and bring it in the house, but the hard work had been done. When someone orders wood here in Macedonia, what arrives is not so much "wood" as several felled trees, as if Gulliver did some weeding in Lilliput and sprinkled his find around the doorsteps all over town. Which brings me to Wood Cutting Guy.

Wood Cutting Guy is our neighbor. I'm not sure what his name is even though he's told me. He speaks in a dialect that can be (for us) very difficult to understand. WCG owns a table saw on wheels and I'd guess fall is a pretty lucrative time of year for him. We saw him everywhere in October with his ear-shattering saw, which I must note, includes absolutely zero safety measures. There's nothing between WCG and a blade spinning at 3500 rpm except the wood he's holding.

When he's not busy preserving his own life, WCG has been saving ours. See, we really needed wood and things were getting desperate. Not for the house, mind you, but for our adult English course. We hold this class, which so far has been a real success, in a rather large, unused room at the fire station. There's a stove in this room and we were assured by the town mayor that wood was not going to be a problem when the temperature turned cold. Well, old buddy, our students can see their breath during class, so where's the wood? Let me guess, you've got a bridge in Brooklyn you'd like to sell me as well.

Jillian and I realized we had to take matters into our hands and so we went on a pilgrimage to see Wood Cutting Guy at his wood-cutting shack. Not only was he willing to help us, but before we could ask when he was available, WCG was putting on some boots and a second coat. We were holding bags of groceries...did he mind if we put these down first? Of course not. Then the field trip began.

Considering I had had exactly one previous conversation with the guy prior to this encounter, we were blown away by the effort he put in for us. We walked around town for over an hour, at each stop waiting patiently outside while he talked with his wood "contacts." Though the first few stops would prove to be strike outs, we persevered until we were on an old stone path above the town. It felt very village-like and a light snow had begun to fall. There we came upon an older man and his wife. She was wearing traditional Macedonian clothing and stirred an enormous vat of pig fat in oil over an open flame. The pig had been killed earlier that day. Once it was decided that this was the place for wood, we celebrated with some fried fat cubes and rakia.

So this man had some wood and was willing to sell. But how to get it down the hill and into town? Turned out that WCG is also TWG, or Transportation of Wood Guy, and before long we were talking to some other neighbors and had soon procured a car and a hitch wagon. Jillian headed home and I climbed into the passenger seat alongside another of my neighbors. WCG was in the backseat and as the car began the steep climb up the hill a can of Skopsko beer serendipitously rolled out from under my seat. After a brief conference, WCG opened the beer and gulped.

"You want a beer?" the driver asked me. I looked back at the floor, wondering how many he stored under his seats.
"No, here." He pointed to the glove compartment. Really? I opened it and found nothing. When I informed him that the minibar was empty my driver looked rather embarrassed, like he was being a bad host. Thankfully we reached the house before things got too awkward.

And from there it happened pretty quick. We loaded up the wagon, brought it down the hill and on Tuesday our students had a fire at their backs as they talked about their families. "Bravo," they said. All the praise goes to Wood Cutting Guy, actually. After we had finished our mission and were back in the neighborhood, I gave him a big round of thanks before heading home. He just said, "It's nothing. If a neighbor needs help, I help." Fried pork fat and rakia at noon? That's very Macedonian. But what WCG did, that's also very Macedonian.

December 02, 2008

Thanksgiving "Vacation"

Macedonia doesn't have any Wal-Marts and nobody here has ever heard of Black Friday, so the Skopje holiday season is off to a retailer-trampled-to-death-free start. While the streets of this country may have bit more trash blowing around them then one would like, none of those articles of debris are Best Buy or Kohl's fliers, screaming out the discounts THIS WEEKEND ONLY! And there's no Starbucks here either. While I miss the coffee, I don't miss their ridiculous holiday slogan, printed cheerfully on those red cups: "It only happens once a year." What only happens once? Only one gun is pulled out at a Toys 'R Us? It's hard to understand how a season that lasts 45 days can be described as happening "once."

Macedonia is, shall we say, a bit more sedate this time of year. Not exactly a consumer society yet (at least, outside of Skopje it's not), this country hasn't embraced the big Christmas/New Year's tsunami. Which is really for the best, since the vast majority of Macedonians don't have that sort of money and, happily, personal debt like credit cards is virtually unknown here. Still, it's a bummer missing out on all the holiday decorations, festivities and cheer. And egg nog.

So while Christmas just ain't the same, Thanksgiving is a pretty close facsimile, courtesy of an all-volunteer Peace Corps turkey dinner. You may remember this get-together from last year, when Jillian was more or less forced into reading a long Macedonian text in front of the entire audience (many of whom are Macedonians) during our skit. Well, this year we only had to bring along some food for the potluck portion of the meal (the turkeys were flown in from Washington, D.C.). I made a baked apple concoction that no one touched. I couldn't blame them. Most of the food was ultra-delicious, though highly tilted towards desserts, and the whole evening was a real blast.

Thanksgiving food, so much it had to be stacked

Of course we're smiling. It's the Eating Holiday.

Following the meal and skits performed by the new group of trainees, we headed back home along with eight other volunteers. Jillian had organized a working weekend with fellow counselors from Camp GLOW...yeah, the camp's not till next July, but Jillian is what you might call Super Duper Organized. If doctors were to hook her up to one of those brain scan machines, I guarantee the print out would closely resemble a flow chart. The weekend was a great success, she reports, with much progress made by day and much fun had at night. And we got in a trip to the local monastery on Saturday afternoon.

Meanwhile, there hasn't been school in over a week, thanks to a nearly nation-wide teachers' strike. The cause of the strike is pay--not salary, but a sort of transportation and food stipend that all Macedonian civil servants receive in addition to salary--but the truly interesting part of all this has been the execution of the whole thing. Let's just say it's not exactly a model of Solidarity. Some schools only striked for a day or so, some never held the strike. In our town, some teachers quickly became fed up with the protest and started calling their students into school. On top of this, the lines of communication are such that local teachers are forced to watch the evening news to learn whether or not the strike will continue the next day.

For our part, the strike has come at a pretty good time: Bube and Tina are submitting their applications to colleges this week, so having the extra free time has been nice for last-minute tuning of their essays and paperwork. And, of course, all the local students are just loving this unexpected holiday. It looks like Saturday on the town's main street, with kids walking around and sitting in the cafe bars all day. Like them, I know the reckoning will come later, most likely in the form of a truncated winter break or several consecutive Saturdays of classes...still, I can't help but give thanks.

November 19, 2008

At Night a Candle's Brighter than the Sun

If you've been following this blog for the last eight months, you may remember our experience on "The Day of the Tree" back in March. That was the day we ascended the hills surrounding our town and planted, umm, trees in pre-dug holes. All municipal workers in Macedonia celebrated this sort of Arbor Day by planting a tree. Ours was more like a weed, but we were assured it would one day be something like a real tree.

Well, that must have been a smash success, because the government chose today for an encore performance. In our town (where, I must add, you can still make out a patch of planted trees on one of the hillsides that spells out TITO) the plan called for all high school students and teachers (plus two PCVs) to be shipped out in buses to a nearby village. Except...the school couldn't find anyone to drive us out there. Apparently the local bus companies weren't feeling particularly altruistic. So eight small trees were planted in the front yard of the school. It took about fifteen minutes. And I spent the midday at a neighbor's house drinking rakia. Not exactly a thrilling tale.

So instead let me take this opportunity to talk about Bube and Tina, who have received passing mentions in previous posts. Both young women are seniors at the high school here in town. Since April, Jillian and I have been working with them as they ready their applications to colleges in the U.S. As December fast approaches, both girls are putting their final touches on essays, translating pertinent financial documents, and studying for the upcoming SAT Subject Tests. It's been a busy last few months.

Macedonia's university system leaves much to be desired. In addition to the usual sorts of things that plague state-sponsored schools (lack of funds, aging infrastructure, trouble hiring top-notch faculty), the universities here are dogged by consistent complaints of corruption with regard to grading. And the icing on the cake: degrees from these schools are generally not recognized by the western developed nations. So finding a job outside Macedonia after college (at least, one that puts your degree to work) is extremely difficult.

This situation is not lost on the best and brightest in the country's high schools. Bube and Tina are both members of the debate team and it was during a spring practice for an upcoming competition that they first mentioned the idea of studying in America to us. Honestly, we couldn't think of two young people who deserve it more--these girls are really special.

We're used to the American mentality with respect to teenagers, a mentality that says they need to be occupied every minute of every day during the high school years. School work, clubs, sports teams, music lessons, work, etc., idleness is not an option. And while this is generally a good strategy for keeping teenagers out of trouble, it also serves the purpose of rounding out that resume for when college applications come calling. As applying to universities (and their money) becomes increasingly competitive, good grades and a winning smile just aren't enough; today's high school student, we are told, must have a resume just dripping with positive life experiences.

Now, I'll be the first to commend any American teenager who goes out there and joins the high school band, plays soccer, writes for the school newspaper, works a job on the weekends, studies Chinese on Thursday nights, and still gets straight A's. But it's worth noting--and here's where the gap between America and our Macedonian town becomes gaping--that all those activities are available for American students. For many kids, there's literally too much to choose from. Unless you've got Hermione Granger's Time Turner, there's simply not enough hours in the day to do it all.

Not so here. There are but a handful of activities available and most kids simply don't do them. It seems that among most parents and teachers, there isn't any sort of emphasis on keeping young people engaged. And it's contagious: most kids feel no inclination whatsoever to get engaged. I've seen this on many occasions at school when offering an activity such as English Club or an essay-writing contest. Twenty or thirty students promise they will be there. Three show up.

I've always liked a certain line from the Sting song "Englishman in New York." Comparing his British restraint and modesty to the notoriety he finds in New York, Sting sings, "At night a candle's brighter than the sun." I've found this poetic turn of a phrase applies quite nicely to Bube and Tina. Against a background of apathy and little opportunity, they stand out. They literally have created opportunities for themselves. Debate is one example--though it was my idea, they took it and ran with it--but perhaps the best example is Healthy Kids Day Camp, which we put on last summer. That camp simply would not have happened without Bube and Tina. Over the course of less than two months, they built the camp from the ground up, designing lessons, finding resources and handling the headaches that came with putting on such a production in a community that initially looked on in suspicion.

And we've been equally impressed with their preparation for college. For the last few months we've held SAT study sessions four times per week and the girls have been very diligent in their studies. With the SAT behind them and the TOEFL (English test) and SAT II approaching, along with the submission deadlines for their schools, the end of this process is near. Then the finger-crossing begins.

November 09, 2008

Wishful Thinking

Funny, but it took coming to Macedonia for us to learn our English grammar. Prior to our Peace Corps service, I would have answered all of the following questions with a simple, "Beats me." -- What is the second conditional? How do we construct the future perfect simple tense? When do we use 'going to' versus 'will' in the future tenses? Etc. This is not stuff we learned in high school (lament conservatives), where instead the focus was reading, writing and critical thinking. Speaking and writing in (mostly) grammatically correct sentences for me was like wiggling my ears...I can do it, but I can't explain how I do it.

Being in the classroom has been quite educational. Much like American foreign language classes--at least the way I remember them--Macedonian students learn a very grammar-intense English. Conversation is minimal and as a result there are a whole slew of kids who can explain reported speech in excruciating detail but can't carry a conversation beyond "How are you?" During my first few months in the high school I often found myself hanging on by a thread as I guided students through exercises--literally figuring out modal verbs just before I explained them ("So that's what those are called!").

Occasionally students will ask me over to their home to help review some material or study for a test. Today was one of those days--three juniors got together to study and invited me over for some lunch and passive/active voice. It was about as much fun as hanging out with three 16-year old girls who talk in rapid Macedonian could really be for 4 hours, but the real payoff came towards the end of the visit, after lunch. One of the girls, Mare, read my fortune.

It's hard to overstate the generational divide between the high school students and their grandparents here in Macedonia. Men and women in their 70s, born before the Second World War, have mostly known only scarcity, hardship, communism and turmoil. Their beliefs and practices are from another time and I sometimes wonder if, looking around their town today with its plentiful, western-style grocery market and a mobile phone to the ear of every other person on the street, they wonder what happened. It's common to see a teenager on a moped pass an old man riding his donkey.

But for all this seismic cultural shifting, reading fortunes in coffee cups has survived, even thrived as a conversation piece. As we've mentioned before, Macedonians drink Turkish-style coffee in their homes. The beans are ground to a powder and then boiled in water. The result is a rather thick and strong brand of coffee with a layer of sludge at the bottom of the cup. It is in this sludge that fortunes are read. The first time we saw this it was at our landlord's house. His mother (age: unknown. It's believed she was born somewhere around 1913, but even she's not sure) and a friend had just finished their coffee when they began this little ritual. At the time I thought it a very charming, soon-to-be-lost custom.

I was wrong. Turns out it survives among teenage girls and today I had one such lass read my fortune. The four of us had just finished our coffee when the girls urged me to turn my cup over on the saucer. Some runny sludge spilled out the sides, but most clung to the bottom of the tiny cup. Perhaps ten minutes later we all removed our cups from the saucers and placed them on a paper towel, still upside down. Another ten minutes elapsed. By now the sludge had semi-solidified and formed all sorts of strange patterns in the cup. Then Mare read my fortune. For such a silly girl, she became awfully serious and concentrated while she examined my grounds, speaking in rapid-fire, monotone Macedonian. Another of the girls, better in English, translated. She said:

"You will meet a black person. You will learn a secret about this black person. Something that happened many years ago--"
--I stopped them here to see if they were messing with me. "You mean Obama?" I asked, smiling (the election was big news here). "O-what?" they said. They were serious, so I let them continue.
"--You have a conversation in you future, a very important conversation."

Ok. The formal part of the fortune was over, but I still had to cast my wish. This consisted of dipping a finger in the grounds and then wiping that smudge on the outside of the cup as I made my wish. Mare read the results, like she was conducting fingerprint analysis:

"This wish has a very good chance of coming true, but you must have that conversation."

So my fortune and my wish will apparently bisect at this "conversation," sometime in the future and perhaps with a black person. Well, I sure hope this conversation isn't in Macedonian. I'll undoubtedly miss the finer details of my wish coming true.

November 03, 2008

Balkan Express, part 2

There's no toll booths on the highways of Slovenia. Nothing but smooth sailing around that tiny country. That's the good news. The bad news is that when we entered Slovenia from Croatia we had to pay 35 Euros--something like 45 bucks--for the highway tariff. It came with a happily colored little sticker for the upper right windshield. We raised our eyebrows at the border guard, to which he informed us that the sticker is good for one year. Great.

We weren't going to be in Slovenia for one year, only three days. We were in the midst of an all-out, fast-as-you-can Balkan road trip (see previous post below) and as we drove away from Ljubljana, a mere 45-minute drive from either the Croatian, Austrian or Italian border we realized what a colossal waste of 35 Euros that sticker was. I think secretly Frank and I computed how many beers we could get for that, and Jillian, Kathy and Erin mentally measured the size of hand-crafted Slovenian bracelet that would fetch.

Anyway, an hour or so later we hit the Croatian coast and forgot all about it. For Jillian and I, recent inhabitants of San Diego, Seattle, Rhode Island and Maine, this was our first real glimpse of ocean (ok, it was actually the Adriatic Sea, but close enough) in quite awhile, if you discount the fleeting glance of the Black Sea we caught on our boat trip north of Istanbul. The Adriatic did not disappoint, nor did our first stop along its shores in Split.

Old Split is a resort town. There were at least four cruise ships docked during our night there. Well, it's easy to see why--the seaside is lined with palm trees and cute cafes and the interior is a fascinating historical tour of the powers of the Mediterranean. See, Diocletian, a rather famous Roman emperor (mostly for torturing a whole lot of Christians) was born just a few miles from present-day Split and he chose this spot for his retirement home, er, palace. The thing took seven years to build and cost (only!) two thousand slaves their lives. More recently, Split was an important trading outpost for the Venetians, the very definition of a maritime power, for a few centuries beginning around 1400. So today, Split is an awesome mix of Italian architecture built around Roman ruins. One store boasts that it stands in the place of Diocletian's dressing room.

While I'm on the subject of Venetian towns, let me skip ahead to Dubrovnik, another Croatian beauty further down the coast. Its just downright unfair how beautiful this town is--there was a collective gasp inside our little white car when the old, walled-in city came into view. Apparently Dubrovnik had been quite the trading post in its day, rivaling any city on the Mediterranean. During the wars of the 1990s, the Serbians, for no other reason than spite, shelled the city and caused extensive damage. Not that one can see evidence of that today--it looks fantastic.

Dubrovnik rests on a tiny jut of land and, as I mentioned, is completely walled-in. The streets are cobblestone and narrow and there are several grand plazas marked with bronze statues and clocks. For obvious reasons, it appears prominently in Croatian tourism commercials, seen often on Macedonian television under the slogan, "See the Mediterranean as it once was." I can't argue with that. Dubrovnik was perfectly and undilutedly old-world. We were nearly giddy as descended down the hill from our rented room (the back of a nice lady's house), crossed the drawbridge (not kidding) and strolled the streets, our noses full of ocean scent.

If Dubrovnik was an idyllic reminder of a faraway time and place, our stopover between it and Split was not. Between those coastal towns was the turnoff to Bosnia, that country whose name became a byword for horror and bloodshed between 1992 and 1995 when hundreds of thousands lost their lives. Today it is a relatively peaceful, albeit struggling, multi-ethnic country comprised of Croatians (Catholic), Bosniaks (Muslim) and Serbs (Orthodox). Indications of disharmony were immediately apparent: In Bosnia road signs are written in both the Latin alphabet (for the Croatians and Bosniaks) and the Cyrillic alphabet (for the Serbians). In the first major town we came upon, on literally every sign we saw, the Cyrillic had been spray painted over in black. This was an ethnically Croatian town.

Then we came to Mostar, one of the front lines in a war that pitted the three groups against each other. Mostar was famous for its old bridge, a bridge that stood for 457 years until a Croatian mortar destroyed it during the war. And the bridge wasn't the only thing. Mostar had been almost completely razed during the conflict and around the periphery of the old town, many buildings stand as testaments to the destruction. Calling these structures bullet-riddled doesn't even scratch the surface. It's amazing many are still standing.

But inside the old town it's a different story. Mostar has been reborn, it's bridge rebuilt. Seeing pictures from the devastation, it's hard to believe it's the same place. And perhaps more important than the rebuilding, Mostar has an indescribable spirit, palpable to us visitors, a mix of sorrow and triumph, beauty and ugliness. Atop the highest peak overlooking Mostar is a large cross; from the old town we could count no less than ten minarets from the community mosques. It is very much a divided city.

After Mostar we continued on to Sarajevo. Maybe no city in recent history has suffered such a reversal of fortune. In 1984 it hosted the Winter Olympics. By 1992 it was under siege, surrounded by the Serbian (Yugoslavian) army. Much larger than Mostar, Sarajevo nonetheless shared in much of that aura. We had the good fortune of staying with a Turkish police officer who is living in the city as part the EU Police Mission. His apartment building, like many in Sarajevo, has the scars of war. He proved to be an excellent tour guide, going way out of his way to show us around and tell us much about the city's recent, tragic story.

His narration was highlighted by a trip to the Tunnel. As the Serbians besieged Sarajevo from the surrounding hills, there was but a narrow strip of land that they did not occupy. This was the airport and it was controlled by the (supposedly neutral) United Nations. The only way for the cold, hungry, terrorized citizens of Sarajevo to get supplies and for its army to get weapons was via an underground tunnel built from the edge of the city for a length of about 800 meters under the airport. The Serbians knew of this tunnel, which is why the entrance and exit to the tunnel were dubbed "Sniper Alley." Today a small portion of the tunnel remains for visitors to tour. At about 5 feet high and 3 feet wide, it is a stark, stunning leftover of those four terrible years.

Old Town Sarajevo is a charming jumble of windy streets of cafes and shops. We had the best burek we'd ever tasted there (a pie of meat or cheese and phylo, ubiquitous in Macedonia) and our host took us to a cozy Turkish restaurant for some late night Turkish tea and rice pudding. He talked about Sarajevo before the conflict, about its ethnic diversity and religious tolerance. In Sarajevo, he explained, mixed marriages were not uncommon. The road back to that place will be long and difficult.

We drove out the next day with swirling emotions. For Americans, the last two decades have had their share of tragedies "over there," whether it be Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur or Congo. And while each one calls up that old question about America's use of power--world's policeman?--it ultimately has seemed easier or more prudent to defer to the international community and the carrot of diplomacy. I'm not necessarily condemning this strategy--certainly our tenacity at the negotiating table helped end the Bosnian crisis. But seeing this country up close, with its still ravaged buildings and divided population, well, it makes those decisions seem just a little bit harder.

Our final stop was in Kotor, Montenegro, a picturesque little sea town on wonderfully wild Kotor Bay. Though the old town could not measure up to the beauty we had seen in Dubrovnik, the old city walls extended well up into the adjacent hillside. This offered us the chance to climb the 1,500 stairs and take in the town and bay from far above.

Then we drove home through the ridiculously mountainous and windy country, dropped the car off and returned to Macedonia, exhausted and totally happy about this choice of trip. Sure, we may not want to hang out again any time soon after being trapped in that small car for eleven days, but seeing the Balkans, the former Yugoslavia, made being in this part of the world all the more special.

November 02, 2008

Balkan Express, part 1

So I originally jotted down this post on some graph paper while sitting in the small auditorium of NOVA High School, an American-financed private school in Skopje. I was waiting for two students, the previously-praised Bube and Tina, to finish taking their four-hour SAT and I was operating on even less hours of sleep after a Halloween party the night before. In case you're wondering I went as Jesus, an idea which, I have to be honest, probably wouldn't have even occurred to me without the daily volleys of "Jesus!" (pronounced in the Spanish "hay-soos" manner) I hear from the town children. At first just sort of weird, being called the Messiah is now just downright hilarious.

Jillian was not present to see the costume manifestation of my newfound (son of) God complex, because she was home beginning the decompression process--on Thursday we returned from a whirlwind tour of the former Yugoslav republics, a trip that took us to elegant Austro-Hungarian streets, to incredible Adriatic coastline and to sad, powerful reminders of recent conflict. Really sweetening the deal was our rental car and the three other volunteers we shared this trip with. This two-thousand kilometer scramble was the very essence of the Road Trip. The Magical Mystery Tour is dying to take you away...

One of the few annoying elements to this trip was the multiple currencies--four in total, as only two countries used the same--and things got off to an auspicious start when we converted some Macedonian denars into Serbian dinars at a joint that took--get this--a 25% cut in the transaction. I know, I know, we didn't really think things through too well, but we really needed some Serbian bills for the nearly constant (and super pricey) toll booths that dot the Balkan highways.

We cruised through southern Serbia as quickly as possible, eager to get to Belgrade. Serbia is singular among the Balkan countries for its rather intense anti-Western, anti-EU, pro-Russia stance. Much of this can be traced to its historic partnership with Russia, the wars of the 1990s and recent events surrounding Kosovo's independence. We saw a lot of evidence of this on the streets of Belgrade, where concrete walls, steps and sidewalks were prominently and often tagged with spray paint condemning the EU and supporting accused war criminals such as the now-on-trial Radovan Karadzic.

Not that we felt any threat or tension as Americans. On the contrary, people were very friendly and mildly amused at our use of the Macedonian language (very similar to Serbian). All told, though, Belgrade was not a particularly impressive city--certainly large and interesting after coming from Skopje, but somehow lacking in that certain savoir faire and, in retrospect, it pales in comparison to the other towns and cities we visited. To wit, we ate dinner in a cavernous, traditionally-styled restaurant that served the exact sort of food we'd find here in Macedonia. So we looked forward to Croatia.
[Food side note: Perhaps the most fascinating thing I saw in Belgrade was a McDonald's. A plaque beside the entrance reads: "The first McDonald's restaurant in Belgrade was opened on March 24th, 1988." With Yugoslavia--and the worldwide communist system--teetering on the verge of collapse, this McDonald's must have been a huge deal when it opened. More than simply Big Macs and fries, wasn't this restaurant the very thing the people wanted? The consumer choices the West had always taken for granted?]

Before I describe Zagreb, some important history: by crossing the border into Croatia, we were entering the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Current-day Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia were all part of that multi-ethnic conglomeration and that produced some important differences between these countries and their southern neighbors of Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and the other Slavic Balkan countries such as Bulgaria. For starters, Croats and Slovenes, while Slavs, are Catholic, not Orthodox, and as a result of that influence they use the Latin alphabet, not the Cyrillic. More interestingly (at least as tourists), Slovenia and inland Croatia are blessed with the architecture of late-1800's Austria-Hungry, much like Prague and Budapest. Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, and, to a lesser extent, Zagreb were beyond charming.

Zagreb's city center is small and was quiet during our brief stopover, but this didn't prevent it from being winner of the Driving Nightmare Of The Sort That Severs Friendships Award for the trip. Narrow one-way streets with incomprehensible parking rules and seemingly unnecessary round-abouts turned what should have been a fifteen minute parking job into something akin to a trip down the Styx. We grumpily climbed out of the little Peugot and made our way to a hostel.

Despite being rather petite, Zagreb is a very elegant, understated city. The aforementioned architecture is complimented nicely by 50s-vintage street cars shuttling citizens around and some really beautiful greenspace. We spent an evening and the next morning wandering the cute streets and eating at a cafe with a picture window view out into the main square. We were definitely impressed and didn't yet know that this was but a minor preview of what awaited us in Slovenia.

A tram in the early morning fog of Zagreb

Outside a church in Zagreb

Slovenia is in the EU, which tells you something about its level of development and standard of living. It was always the best well-off of the republics in Yugoslavia due to its metal industry and border with Austria and Italy (unlike Warsaw Pact countries, Yugoslavia was not completely closed off to the west--remember the Yugo automobile?--because Tito had firmly resisted joining into any sort of alliance with the USSR). Situated at the base of the Julian Alps, Slovenia is a positively gorgeous country. Rolling green hillsides followed the highway into Ljubljana and many of the homes on those hillsides sported Alpine roofs.

For the five of us, Ljubljana was pretty much love at first sight. Located near the confluence of two rivers (Ljubljanica and Danube), the city has an old-world feel that left us constantly remarking "This was Yugoslavia?!" The three ladies (Jillian and friends Erin and Kathy) thoroughly enjoyed perusing the shops along the river, while Frank and I thoroughly enjoyed a beer or coffee while waiting for them. The eating and drinking options were bountiful and the nightlife was vibrant. Indeed, we felt a very, very long way from Macedonia.

Old Ljubljana

Ljubljana's famed Dragon Bridge

A castle overlooks the city and provides and excellent view of the region as well as a really nice hike up. Adding to that regal feel, we had a close encounter with Queen Elizabeth of England, who was in town the same weekend as us. Slovenes lined the street to see her walk past with other dignitaries and I was having a difficult time figuring out where she was when, suddenly, the crowd parted and she was no more than fifteen feet away from me, waving grandly. Well, that was unexpected.

Because we had (smartly) planned on three nights in Ljubljana, we had time for a day trip to Bled, a lake town at the very base of the Alps. Throughout our trip we had positively perfect weather--sunny and 60 inland, sunny and 70 along the coast--except in Bled, where clouds, rain and fog hugged the mountains. Taking the slippery trail towards the castle overlooking the town and lake, I got this feeling we were approaching the House of Usher.

So the view was ruined and the town was deserted, but the day was saved by a gem of a hike through a gorge just outside of Bled. The gray weather was actually a plus there, as it enhanced the mood as we walked along the wooden platform constructed through the gorge. Standing among the evergreens, watching salamanders dart out from under mossy roots, it was hard to believe that just the next day we'd be standing among palm trees in a seaside resort town built among the ruins of a Roman emperor's retirement palace. But in Split, Croatia, we found just that.

But that's next time...and don't forget, more pictures can be found in "Our Photos" in the right column.

Hiking outside Bled

October 17, 2008

Before We Go...

Unfortunately this post has to be much shorter than I'd want. It's Friday night and we're packing up for our trip beginning tomorrow to all the former Yugoslav republics: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Montenegro. We're renting a car with some fellow PCVs and looking forward to seeing the Balkans, an area brimming with fascinating history and recent tragedy. But for now we're just stressing and trying to cram everything we need for the 10 days into a single backpack (it'll be small car with no room for lots of stuff) and making sure the house is kitten safe for the next couple of weeks. A couple of of our students are looking after little Arye while we're away.

Speaking of those students, the season's first high school debate was held at a nearby town last weekend and our kids shined. Seriously. There was a great moment when the crowd was struck silent as one of our girls served up her rebuttal. As one of my other students (a first-time debater) remarked: "I didn't realize Tina could be so confident when speaking." Needless to say, both teams were victorious on the subjects of parental responsibilty when a minor commits a crime and the efficacy of Macedonia's new one-computer-per-child policy. But most importantly, the students from all the competing schools had a great time hanging out, getting to know each other and taking part in something a little different.

My debating superstars, Bube and Tina

The debaters, post-debate

Our other major accomplishment these last two weeks has been getting our adult English classes off the ground. We have beginner, intermediate and advanced classes. The beginner class is particularly fun, as we get to start from ground zero--the alphabet, greetings, introductions, etc. The adults coming to this course are very enthusiastic and have great attitudes about learning a new language. Jillian and I have tried to apply our own impressions as language learners to these classes, remembering what worked and what didn't when we were first learning Macedonian. The atmosphere is thus far very positive.

Sorry, I've got to stop there. The kitten is tormenting Jillian as she tries to do the last of the dishes. This mostly involves jumping into the sink and licking the suds. What a weirdo. See you in two weeks!

October 13, 2008

Ajvar Revisited

Nationalism is a hard thing for an American to understand, and here's why: it seeks to define a nation--its customs and traditions, politics, religion, borders--through the lens of a single ethnicity. As nationalism tells it, everyone gets their own country; everyone else can just stay out. After all, you've got your own country, don't you? Ergo, Romanians live in Romania. Serbians live in Serbia. Macedonians live in Macedonia. Etc. Some obvious problems arise.

So you can see why this might be a difficult concept for an American to internalize. There's no such thing as an ethnic American. Sure, we have our own go-nowhere arguments about what is and what isn't patriotism, but there's a strong consensus in America that the ideas guiding our country are far stronger than any single ethnic identity. America is great because the Irish and Italians built New York, the Chinese built the Pacific railroad, the Mexicans built the California agricultural machine, the Germans built the industrial Midwest and so on. We embrace what various groups have given the country.

What is this--Dan's feeling a bit nostalgic this evening? Actually, no. But last weekend had me thinking about these things when Jillian and I stopped over at our landlord's home to help them with ajvar, that traditional Macedonian spread/paste/condiment prepared from peppers and other vegetables. It's that season (autumn) and you really can't go more than a hundred meters without catching that wonderful smell wafting from some backyard.

Mare stirs the pot

Macedonia officially recognized the sovereignty of Kosovo on Thursday and the small transistor radio in our landlord's garage told the tale of jam-packed talk radio discussing the subject. It's a touchy one, as it involves not only Serbia's historical claim to the region, but also Albanian claims in an otherwise Slavic area. So there's lots of nationalism involved.

But about this's not actually a garage, but an old Turkish house dating back over one hundred years. Now rotting and looking vaguely dangerous, it's crumbling ground floor is used by Todor and Mare as a storage area. It's absolutely great. First off is that Turkish thing I mentioned. A century ago the town (and most of Macedonia) was inhabited by Turks as part of Ottoman rule, so the only truly "old" buildings in town were built by them. This house I'm describing includes a single-person sauna that resembles a walk-in closet and beautiful hand-crafted dark wood ceilings and doors.

As we sat outside this house stirring ajvar, sampling ajvar, drinking rakia and talking about the perfect fall weather, I admired this makeshift garage. It looks like something out of a Rockwell painting, with every half-empty oil can, rusting bucket and wood beam in its right place. The floor is dirt and the window on the opposite wall is caked with grime.

Meanwhile, out in the sun, we stirred. The ajvar sat in a pot the size of an old-fashioned bathtub over a fire and it required continuous stirring lest it become scorched. Every fifteen minutes Mare would pull out a spoonful and check the consistency like a mad scientist (truth be told, she does have the same hair as Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future. One-point-twenty-one gigawatts!). Then she would add more sunflower oil. Any illusions Jillian and I had previously maintained about the potential healthiness of ajvar were shattered watching Mare pour 3.5 liters of oil into this concoction.

The sun moved a bit lower and it was time to jar the ajvar. Jillian stuck her blue plastic funnel into the first jar and began scooping, and all over Macedonia this exact process was under way on a warm Sunday. It truly was a Rockwell painting; sentimental, perhaps, but a glorious old tradition that has nothing to do with ethnicity and everything to do with autumn traditions in the Balkans.

Then came the scara, or barbeque. The remaining embers from the fire were transferred to a small grill and Todor ordered me with a flick of his hand to take over the grilling. A typical ending to any Macedonian chore: good food and great drink. The ajvar turned out delicious and we came away from with our own jar, though the reward was really in the privilege of helping to make it.

Filling those jars

Grilling up some lunch

October 06, 2008


As the season really gets going (and cools down--did someone say mid-50s?) Jillian and I have taken up the task of greatly expanding the pool of English language learners in our town. Last school year was all about the elementary (Jillian) and high school (Dan) kids, but this time around we're reaching out in both directions through the community's preschool and our own self-started adult classes. At this rate, by next year we'll have our lessons included in Orthodox Last Rites and on womb-penetrating CDs, right next to Mozart.

Our adult classes start in earnest tomorrow, so for now let's just stick with the little ones. We teach English at the local community center/preschool for Roma children.

Ok, two things need amplification in that last sentence. First off, it's perhaps a bit of an exaggeration to say we're "teaching English." These little tikes have the attention span of our cat, so we can get in a few things (today it was "car, bus, bicycle, airplane,") before the restlessness boils over and they just want to play. Which, really, is totally fine. And fun.

And second: who are Roma children? As wild as this region of the world is for soccer, these are not children raised to be superfans of Italy's famous team, Roma. In fact they are part of an ethnic group that is well represented in Macedonia. Well represented, but not well treated. The history of this group is long and tortured (as in, many amongst them have undoubtedly faced torture over the centuries) and has left the Roma people on the fringe of society throughout southeastern Europe. They have hardly integrated and face intense discrimination. Is it there skin color (they originate from India)? Is it their language, Romani (though they also learn Macedonian)? Is it there customs, still preserved centuries later?

Broader questions like that don't seem particularly important when we walk to see friends and pass by the Roma part of town. In a community of 15,000, the Roma number somewhere around 500. The street is unpaved and dusty. Their homes have not been brought into the city water system, evidenced by the appearance of the few Roma children who attend Jillian's elementary school. No Roma children attend the high school, they've all dropped out by then. In a town (and country) struggling with unemployment, the Roma community here faces a virtual 100% jobless rate.

But one man who has a job is Safet. He is a one-man organization called Napredok-Anglipe--it's Macedonian and Romani for "forward." He operates a sort of community center that also serves as a preschool for Roma children. It's housed in the bottom floor of the preschool for Macedonian children and is (by local standards) a rather nice little spot. There are several cute rec rooms and a nice classroom with miniature desks and chairs and donated toys and games.

Safet came to us. He literally rang our doorbell one morning and asked us to join him at his center. He worked with another PCV several years ago and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. And while we're slightly wary of his enthusiasm towards our alleged ability to tap infinite (unnamed) financial sources--this is a recurring theme here--we absolutely love the opportunity he's given us to work with these children. What a difference from the high school!

[A funny aside involving Safet: When we were planning our work in the preschool, the original idea was that we would hold classes and activities with both Roma and Macedonian children in mixed classes. Well, this fell through...something about Macedonian parents wanting nothing to do with that. Anyway, when we went to speak to the director of the Macedonian preschool we found that we couldn't understand her at all. I mean, at all. She speaks ridiculously fast and shows no interest in slowing down for us. So Safet was translating into slower, simpler Macedonian (he's actually quite easy to understand). She would speak, and then he would speak and we'd get it.]

So we've been to the center a few times now. Like I mentioned above, we're not so much teaching English as we are simply playing with the kids while speaking English. Sure, we've had a few minor lessons with them--hello, stand up, sit down, make a circle, etc--but the kids seem to get just as much out of us sitting on the floor with them crashing toy cars (the boys and Dan) or drawing flowers on the chalkboard (the gals and Jillian). Ditto for us, as well. Being with these little children is proving to be such a wonderful experience and distraction from some of the frustrations with other projects, ideas and general life stuff.

This seems to be working out fine with everyone at the preschool. We'll just keep moving forward.

September 24, 2008

525,600 Minutes

Whew! Just when I was thinking, "What the heck am I going to write about this week? Let's see, I saw this misshaped pumpkin growing through a steel gate today. Oh, and our kitten dragged a piece of toast off Jillian's plate and scampered away yesterday."--along comes our one-year anniversary. That's right, happy readers, it was 365 days ago today that our plane touched down in Skopje (where we were greeted by the sign reading "Alexander the Great Airport") and thus began our sojourn as Peace Corps Volunteers.

And so like an aging, flabby rock band (think the Stones post-1975) with nothing original to offer except a greatest hits album, here's a slew of our favorite photos from the last year. And like that same band who then turns to the "live album" until that alleged "inspiration" comes along, we've added some photos from this afternoon from around town.

One year in Macedonia gets you:

1 new cat

1 lazy hunter

2 great host parents

2 lame poses

3 channels

5 pints of green beer

10 amazing weddings (wait, it was only one?)

21.2 kilometers

Dozens of new friends

80 girls tie-dyed

Tens of kids at summer camp

Hundreds of peppers drying

Thousands of snails harvested

Not bad for a year's work.

September 14, 2008

Backpacks, Borders and Beer

This small town doesn't really do advertising. For any given event, whether it's a Red Cross fundraiser or an art exhibition, you're lucky if a few fliers find their way up in store fronts. Eerily, about the only thing that's well-publicized around here is death, in the form of announcements posted on telephone poles.

But then it's not really that important around here, in this town where word of mouth spreads faster than internet chain mail. A culture based on personal relationships and socializing doesn't really need posted announcements to know what's going on--sitting down to coffee with your neighbors is a better source of local events than checking email or reading fliers in the library windows could ever hope to be.

Problem is, unless someone specifically seeks us out, sits us down, and talks Baby Macedonian to us, Jillian and I won't really pick up on the word of mouth network. More than once, I've been asked by one of the teachers or students at school why I didn't attend such-and-such. Well...because this is the first I'm hearing of it.

So imagine my delight when, walking home from school a few days ago, I crossed paths with the head of the local hiking club whom informed me that there was an organized climb of the region's highest peak on Saturday. Then she said something else. I didn't catch it, but felt lucky to have the day and time of the hike. That something "else" was of some importance, and it sure was one hell of a surprise yesterday...

So about this mountain. It's called Ruen--or, literally, "Mt. Everest of Northeastern Macedonia"--and its peak sits directly on the Macedonian-Bulgarian border. Compared with the more majestic and lush peaks in western Macedonia it's not a whole lot to look at, as if someone planted a wide swath of blueberry fields on the moon. The terrain is the stuff ankle sprains are made of--loose, large, hard rocks--but the view was quite impressive and the hike fast. Before we knew it, the group (numbering about 60 people from various hiking clubs around the country) was approaching the summit. At this point many of the long-abandoned military outposts from WWII, crumbling and haunting, were clearly visible along the extended ridge.

National flag? Check. Beer? Check. Let's go.

Jillian near the peak

After a final scramble up a steep incline, we arrived at the summit. And saw around one hundred people already there, eating and drinking. Ummm...? A few Peace Corps volunteers from the other side of the mountain who had hiked up with their own hiking club gave us the scoop:

"Oh yeah, there's supposed to be some sort of ceremony and then we're all crossing over the border for the party...barbeque, beer, dancing."

I glanced down at my clunky hiking boots and tried to imagine doing the oro, the traditonal Macedonian dance that tends to spontaneously erupt at any social event numbering more than three people. Well, this certainly explained why one of our guides on the hike was carrying a backpack bulging with two-liter bottles of Skopsko beer. Over the next hour more people arrived, many by four-wheel-drive vehicles from both sides of border. Border police from both sides stood together, chatting and laughing, as the crowd swelled.

Then the ceremony began. It was a sort of gift exchange between the two sides signalling their peaceful relationship. Well, I'll say. No sooner had that official business ended then everyone high-tailed it over to the Bulgarian border station (a mere 200 meters away), where the grills were already working overtime and the sound of carbonation escaping beer bottles filled the air. And people were dancing.

The fact that all of this was occuring at 7,000 feet on a grassy plateau from which we could see into the infinity of southern Macedonia, western Bulgaria, and southern Serbia, never ceased to be funny. Oh yeah, and there were some horses meandering in the area, no doubt waiting to be photographed for a calendar of inspirational quotes. Sausages were served off the grill and some friendly Bulgarian men invited us over to drink from their pail full of white-wine-and-lemon spritzer.

After a couple hours of this, we heard the by-now familiar shriek of our leader's whistle. It was time to go. At the bottom, we hitched a ride with some Skopje-bound hikers. I sat in the front seat, feeling sufficiently car sick from the twisty road back into town while Jillian sat in the back of the van laughing it up with a rambling old man. He was probably passing on some worthy word-of-mouth information about next year. Who knows? We'll just have our beer at the ready, just in case.

Just your average Saturday spent rejoicing with border guards

On the border with the flags of Macedonia, Bulgaria and the E.U.

September 03, 2008

Back to School

Welcome back, class. Let's begin this brand new school year with that time-honored tradition, the pop quiz.

1. The school supply aisles at Staples and Wal-Mart are jammed packed with moms and dads and shopping carts because

a) Willy Wonka slipped a few Golden Tickets into specially marked packages of
b) they heard it's where the Libertarian Party is holding its
c) it's where that old woman giving out cheese samples on
toothpicks is hanging out.
d) it's that season commonly referred to at
OfficeMax corporate headquarters as The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

2. Which country is in the midst of supplying every student with a desktop computer?

a) United States
b) Russia
c) China
d) Macedonia

Ok, if you answered D for both questions, you get a star. Indeed, it is that time of year again, when millions of American children head back to school. Time to fire up the school buses, pack those brown bag lunches, and wrap up enormous textbooks in protective paper grocery bags. The weather is still warm, your teachers all still seem so nice, the homework still feels so manageable and no one has yet uttered, "How many weeks till Columbus Day?"

Of course, American kids aren't the only ones heading back to school. Here in Macedonia the school year has begun and we're both very glad we're here to see it and take part in it. And so in honor of this new beginning, some observations:

#1: Before you buy the book, check the kid's grades. Perhaps the most startlingly obvious difference between Macedonian and American schools is that students here must buy their own textbooks. The school doesn't supply any. Zero. There are no locked cabinets bursting at the seams with used hardbacks. No spot for the students to fill in their name, the school year, and the condition of the book (which always seemed like the most useless query, anyway). So students buy their books from shops in Skopje, photocopy a friend's book or, more likely, they buy them from students who took the course the previous year. More often than not, books in this third category already have the answers filled in for most of the exercises. While this may sound like a sweet deal for the purchasing party, it leads to some rather hilarious instances of students answering questions in class with positively ridiculous responses. Rather than attempt the question themselves, they'll simply read what was written last year.

#2: This town needs itself a good steam whistle. Most people who bemoan the state of American education point to overcrowding in schools as one piece of evidence. Surely no one wants to cram thirty kids into a classroom and then expect the teacher to give them all the sort of attention they deserve. But what happens when you have 1,100 kids in a school that can hold 500? You get what many communities in Macedonia have, a two-shift school day. For instance, at the high school the day begins at 7:45am. Around 1:00pm there is a mass exodus of teenagers and teachers from the building and into the city center. Thirty minutes later the other half arrive and stay until around 7:00pm. Every two weeks the groups switch shifts.

#3: The proverbial horse and cart are a bit mixed up. There's a scene in Star Trek IV (the one about the whales) in which Chief Engineer Scotty is forced to use a 20th century computer. Describing the PC as "quaint" he begins by picking up the mouse, holding it to his lips and saying, "Hello, computer." So Scotty was a bit too advanced for our primitive desktops, yet I couldn't help but think of him on the first day of school when I saw the evidence of Macedonia's new one-computer-per-student plan. There on the desks, brand new and sleek black, are hundreds of new PCs. Everyone's got one. To be honest, they look great. Ok, but now what? For a country still trying to modernize its teaching practices and curriculum (that's partly why we're here, after all), this is a peculiar move. Teaching with computers is a lot harder than it sounds and that's assuming the teacher is fluent in technology to begin with. Many of the older teachers in town have never used a computer, I'm quite sure. So maybe they have something in common with John McCain, but this doesn't bode well for the use of these particular PCs.

There's the bell, time to go. Hope you took notes, because there will be a quiz next time.

August 16, 2008

Sketches of Spain

Talk about a false cognate: the word "mal" in Macedonian means small, while in Spanish it means bad. So it wasn't terribly surprising when the nice woman behind the counter in Granada raised an eyebrow when I asked for a bad ice cream. This kept happening to us. No longer possessing the acrobatic brain of a child, we apparently are only capable of handling one foreign language at a time. Sure, we both took Spanish for several years in high school and college, but we effectively TNT'd that tunnel shut when we started learning Macedonian. I could almost hear my synapses removing the rubble, searching for daylight, as we examined Spanish menus, deciphered street signs, and asked about bus tickets.

Following the wedding and our visit in Paris [see previous post below], Jillian and I caught an overnight train to Madrid to kick off a week-long tour of Andalusia, the southern region of Spain. As the train rumbled across the French countryside in the waning daylight, we made our way to the dining car and were delighted to find...three-dollar beers! Well, Toto, we certainly weren't in Paris anymore, where beers routinely cost eight bucks. After a surprisingly comfortable sleep as the train crossed through the Pyrenees and descended into the hot lowlands of Spain, we emerged from the train and began our week of tapas, history, and, oh yeah, tons of walking.

Briefly about Andalusia: its incredibly charming and unique character comes from the fact that it was ruled by Moorish Muslims for over five hundred years--in fact, Al-Andus (as it was called) was quite a wealthy and successful center of commerce and culture to the very end, when Ferdinand and Isabel completed the Reconquest and united Spain under a Catholic monarch. Today, Andalusia is largely defined by this incredible mix of Catholicism and Islam, Iberian and Moorish.

The sun was intense and the thermometer was pushing 100 degrees as we climbed the steep grade towards the hills overlooking Granada. It was so much warmer in Spain than it had been in France and, due to an absolute absence of clouds, incredibly bright. We pushed on, though, for our destination was the Alhambra, easily one of Spain's top attractions. Granada was the capital of Al-Andus for many centuries and toward the end of Moorish rule, the Alhambra was built as a centerpiece citadel and palace. Over five hundred years later, it did not disappoint.

The grounds were an exquisite mix of gardens and low-lying buildings of Islamic architecture. At the center was the Nasrid Palace, a wonderfully ornate and detailed structure. The contrast between what we saw here and the plethora of Catholic churches and monuments throughout the region could not have been greater. While the strength of Catholic decor lies in its depiction of people and events--saints, the stations of the cross, Mary, etc.--Islamic design feature no people. In fact, it's forbidden. In its place we found hand-carved murals with elaborate designs and script.

Both pictures: Inside the Alhambra

From atop the Alhambra's fortress wall Granada can be seen in total. In the center of Granada sits a seeming impossibly large cathedral, as if a Catholic spaceship had descended upon the city (close encounters of the Word kind). Staring at this behemoth from the tower of a Moorish citadel only served to reinforce this religious and cultural juxtaposition and reminded us why Andalusia is so interesting.

A short distance from the cathedral is Granada's old Jewish quarter. Due to a relatively high degree of religious toleration during the Moorish period (as opposed to the Inquisition that followed the Reconquest), such neighborhoods are common throughout Andalusia. White-washed walls, confusingly narrow streets of cobblestone, and tiny, tucked away cafes made exploring these areas one of our favorite activities. In Sevilla, the largest city in the region, the Jewish quarter is impeccably kept up and every twist and turn in the streets seems to lead to another undiscovered square or plaza.

Also in Sevilla is a famous bullfighting ring. With all due respect to Ernest Hemingway and the romanticism surrounding this "sport," neither of us had any desire to take in a bullfight. Blindfold the matador, and maybe you'll get me in to see a fair fight. That being said, we had to see the ring. Situated beautifully along the river on Sevilla's main avenue, it really is romantic and dashing, painted in vibrant reds and yellows. Enormous posters advertise upcoming bullfights, the matadors' names announced largely.

Jillian outside the bullring, Plaza de Toros

Also in Sevilla

In addition to Sevilla and Granada, we also visited Cordoba, Toledo, and Madrid. Though technically not in Andalusia, Madrid and Toledo nonetheless pulsated with much of the same flair and history. Toledo, particularly, features a breathtaking old city built during Moorish rule. Along our trip we consumed as many tapas as possible and I think I ate about twenty bowls of gazpacho (by the end of the week, Jillian wouldn't let me order it).

It was a bit strange, but mostly really nice, being back in the west, where buses are clean and air-conditioned, where we were allowed to flush our toilet paper, where the streets weren't cluttered with litter, and where people wait patiently in line. Still, by week's end we were excited to get back to Macedonia (with Jillian's mother...they are touring Macedonia as I write this) and to start planning our school year activities and events.

[As always, many more pictures can be found by clicking on "Our Photos" on the right sidebar.]

Entrance to Old Toledo