January 29, 2008

A Mile High

Sometimes it's just being in the right place at the right time. Sitting in the teacher's room one afternoon last week, I happened to overhear the gym teacher say something about hiking (luckily, it's one of the verbs we know). After I raised an eyebrow inquisitively, he explained that the local mountaineering club was organizing a hike up to one of the peaks that surrounds the town. He pointed to a nearby flyer posted on the wall and said something like, "Haven't you seen these up around the school?" Well, yeah, I had. But considering that the literal translation of the flyer's title was "Everyone to the Snow," you'll forgive me if I didn't instinctively recognize it for what it was.

The hike's destination was an 1,800-meter (5,580 feet) peak south of town and the outing wound up being approximately 12 miles round trip. Though the temperature sat firmly in the 30's when the hike began at 7am, by mid-morning the sun was shining brightly and it was soon pushing 50 degrees. The group--about 40 strong--was made up mostly of teenagers, who the hiking club apparently targets for these activities.

As we rose above the town, the scenery and views were fabulous and by the time we were within a mile of our destination we were trudging through the white stuff. Everyone to the snow! Near the peak was a small complex comprised of sleeping quarters, a kitchen, several bathrooms, and a really nice playground. Apparently this spot is quite the destination year-round and can be used by hikers as a stopping off point on their way to the highest peak in the region, which was still another six or seven miles further on.

Like most American hikers, Jillian and I came with our efficiency mindset: like Julius Caesar, we proclaimed "Veni, vidi, vici," or perhaps more accurately, "We climbed, we saw, we ate lunch. Can we go now?" But we should have figured that Macedonians would hike like they live, with extended breaks for food and drink. As the students carried on with snowball fights, makeshift skiing, and generally teenage behavior, the adults gathered on the picnic tables for what seemed like several courses of coffee, tea, wine, various meat products, and bakery goods. While Jillian and I accepted their generous offerings (all we could counter with were some crackers), we really were beginning to wonder how long we would be staying up there...

Three and half hours later the descent began and by late afternoon we were home, quite exhausted and quite happy to have made this connection. There will be another expedition in February and it sounds as if the club goes out on a regular basis during the summer, including some overnights.

Meanwhile, back down here at our normal elevation (which happens to be around 2,300 feet), school has started up again and Jillian and I are starting to get busy. We both have begun our English Clubs, which gives us a chance to offer extra English instruction to those students who want it. Even better, perhaps, it exposes these students to a different type of instruction. Thus far, they have responded very positively to the games and activities and there has been a lot of interest. Just today, Jillian received the sign-up sheet from the 5th graders...54 kids! Looks like she's going to need to add a few more sessions.

And to those of you not on Skype...why not!? It should be noted that Grandpa Kimes was the first to jump on and others have followed. The calls are extremely clear and FREE. So get out there and buy that $10 computer microphone and give us a ring, we'd love to hear from you. Everyone to the Skype!

January 17, 2008

How to Really Be Remembered

This week I was doing some research into a man referred to in Macedonian as Крали Марко, or Prince Marko, a medieval Serbian prince who ruled over an area that included present-day central Macedonia. Apparently he shows up in some traditional Macedonian, Serbian, and Bulgarian folk stories and songs, but not a whole lot is known about old Marko. And what is known of him is not incredibly impressive. In fact, as one site put it: "It is unclear why he became such an important epic figure, taking into account his relatively small historical role."

Ok. So why was I looking into the past of this mostly unknown royalty from the 14th century? What about this obscure folk hero would ever persuade me to dedicate a few of my valuable internet surfing minutes towards investigating the life and times of said hero? Simple: he has a beer named after him. It's not a good beer; in fact, it's to generally be avoided, but that's neither here nor there.

Sitting there with a cold glass of his namesake beer, how could one feel anything but warm things towards the prince. Knowing anything about him is not a requisite to loving the man, just think of Sam Adams. Who bears any ill will towards that Patriot? Though it was his cousin, John, who went on to be our second president, today it's Sam's face we see on so many bottles. And likewise, Macedonia has had many celebrated heroes throughout its history, and yet it is Prince Marko who is everywhere.

See, these fellows--Sam and Marko--have found the perfect shortcut to enduring fame. It's like landing on that really, really long ladder on Chutes 'n Ladders, the one that takes you nearly the entire length of the board just for helping an old woman carry her groceries. As the competition trudges up the board getting good grades and scraping their knees, you're watching them from the victory circle, relishing your good fortune.

No doubt Marko is somewhere enjoying that same feeling right now. He found that ladder, thereby hop-scotching hundreds of years of famed warriors, kings, politicians, poets, and authors to land himself on a popular label found in every corner store in Macedonia. And when Macedonia joins the EU, Marko will be taking his show on the road, prompting thousands of Europeans to ponder, "Who the heck is Крали Марко?"


January 12, 2008

The Twelve Moments of Christmas

Well, that ambiguously long season called "the holidays" is at its end--this past week we traveled back to the village for the Orthodox Christmas with our host family and then visited some friends in Skopje. Our favorite twelve moments from our first holiday season in Macedonia:

  • One gold coin. Christmas Eve was a good night. After a rather unpleasant trip (see #10), we arrived in the village quite cold and quite hungry. We were in luck: Lila had prepared possibly the single largest amount of food for one occasion that we had ever witnessed. All our favorites were there right alongside Nikola's homemade wine. Before the meal began, we took part in a unique tradition, the Christmas bread. It's baked with a coin nestled inside the dough and the meal begins with the breaking of this bread. The first piece is set aside to God, and the rest is distributed among the family. Tradition holds that the person who finds the coin in the bread will find great fortune and luck in the next year. Well, I hope that's true, because Jillian found the coin.

  • Two wonderful packages. Upon returning from Skopje we found a note from the post office stuck in our front door. Twenty minutes later we were opening some fantastic Christmas gifts from the family. As I carried them up the hill to our house, a couple of kids ran up to me, asked me the perfunctory "What is your name?" and then asked if the packages were from America. "Yes, from George Bush," I answered.

  • Three table dancers. According to the printed schedule, the New Year's party for the high school teachers ended at midnight. Technically true, yes, but while that may have ended the official program at a local restaurant, it did little to halt the spirit of the evening. Before long, a few of the teachers were perched atop one of the dining tables leading a rousing round of Macedonian songs between long swigs of whatever bottles happened to be on that table.

  • Four missed buses. I guess it comes from living in a country of great abundance, but Americans know how to wait in line and we do it quite efficiently. Whether at the grocery store, the DMV, or the bank, Americans lines are straight and orderly. And why not? Everyone's going to get what they came for and they'll only get it more quickly if they wait in the established line. Macedonia has historically never been a place of great abundance and this plays out in the way most people (don't) wait in lines. Cutting is common and often there simply isn't a line, but rather a mass of people pushing towards something. This is especially true at the bus station in Veles, where we found ourselves trying to catch a bus to Skopje. Four straight buses came, and four straight times Jillian and I were muscled out of the way--literally shoved--and kept off the crowded buses. Well, by the fifth time around, frustration had choked the life out of our American sense of patience and we shoved right back. I actually had to straight-arm one guy who tried to cut me off as I climbed the steps into the bus.

  • Five dictators. One night in Skopje, Jillian and I joined a few other volunteers at a local restaurant called Кај Маршалоt, or, At the Marshall's. The man in question here is Marshall Tito, the former long-time ruler of Yugoslavia. In addition to having some really great food, the restaurant was essentially the Hard Rock Cafe of communism, with every conceivable item of nostalgia one could imagine. Portraits, busts, photos with other world leaders, and quotes--it was a Tito bonanza. And, just for good measure, there were also some portraits of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Castro in the mix. Try the meat stew, it's to die for.

  • Six degrees Celsius. Our house is a rarity; it has central heating. Most Macedonian homes do not and during the winter many families only heat those one or two rooms which have a stove. Such is the case at our host family's house. We never really had to think about it when we were living there (it wasn't so cold and we had a space heater), but returning as guests in January, we got the draft, er, drift. Walking into the guest bedroom, we were immediately struck by the fact that we could see our breath. The digital thermometer on our travel alarm clock: 44 degrees. I'm not making this up. But as it turns out, we actually slept quite snugly beneath our...

  • Seven wool blankets. Admittedly, it was a bit difficult to move under there.

  • Eight-person sleepover. One of the greatest things about traveling in Macedonia is that no matter where we go there will always be a volunteer to stay with. And when those visits coincide with other volunteers' visits, it's a downright party. Staying with our friend Erin in Skopje, we saw no less than twelve other volunteers, many of whom joined us for a fun evening of cooking and singing (it was "Come on Eileen" at midnight that broke the camel's back--Erin's neighbors did a great deal of banging on the walls).

  • Nine (hundred) firecrackers. See our last post regarding the barrage on New Year's Eve.

  • Ten frozen toes. Like the bedrooms, public buildings are freezing cold during the Macedonia winter. This makes traveling--already a bit frazzling due to pushing crowds and late buses and trains--all the more testing on one's patience. On our trip to the village, we waited two extra hours at the Skopje train station for what eventually turned out to be an unheated train. The temperature inside the station was the same as out on the platform and to be honest it felt much worse inside, where my brain kept telling me it should be warmer.

  • Eleven rounds of оро. This is the traditional Macedonian dance which, in its most basic form, is essentially a group of people walking in a circle holding hands (hell, even I can dance this). At the municipality New Year's party, which Jillian attended with her colleagues from the primary school, there was no stopping the opo. Jillian learned every variation there could possibly be and just when it seemed like the proceedings were winding down...fire up the band! Here we go again! Jillian was sore for the next couple of days.

  • A dozen cups of coffee. As I write this, I'm sipping on a cup of coffee from our brand new, American-style drip coffee maker. It was remarkably easy to find one in Skopje at one the ubiquitous appliance stores and we spent yesterday pretty much wired out of our minds on the full pot of coffee we drank in the morning.

Now that the holidays are over, I do miss one tradition from back home: guessing which house in the neighborhood will be the last to take down their decorations. There's usually at least one or two families who still have a brown wreath on the door or Santa on the lawn on Valentine's Day.

January 04, 2008

A Winter's Day

Happy New Year! Our first really significant snowfall arrived just after the first of the year and gave the town and surrounding hills and mountains a very idyllic appearance. As we're both on break right now along with all the other teachers at our respective schools, we've had plenty of time to do lots of snooping around town and we were out in the snow when it was really coming down.

In Macedonia New Year's is a bigger deal than Christmas, which is celebrated according to the Orthodox calendar and this year falls on January 7th. It is on New Year's that Santa Claus visits, though here he is called Дедо Мраз, or Grandfather Ice, which sounds like something a bit sinister (like the Dutch Black Peter) or like a really old rapper coming out of retirement. But really, he's the same ol' Saint Nick, complete with the red-and-white suit and white beard.

With one major exception: on New Year's and Christmas, there isn't really much focus on gifts. Even though Santa does bring presents on December 31st, it's very modest by Western standards. Macedonia is not (yet) a consumer society and so has been spared the near year-round extravaganza that Christmas has become in America. Based on the way stores and street corners are decorated, you'd think it was late October back home, when you find yourself saying, "I can't believe that guy already has his Christmas decorations up!"

So the 31st was a pretty typical New Year's Eve, complete with the Kearneys packing it in with a movie or two (or a season of Lost, in this case). Until midnight, that is, when the firecrackers came out. The kids in town (and all over the country, I assume) collected some sort of ultra-loud firecracker that sounds a bit too much like a gunshot. At the stroke of midnight these things were going off by the hundreds--you'd have thought we were being beseiged or shelled from the surrounding mountain tops.

By 1am it was quiet again and soon after the snow began to fall. This week we'll be traveling back to the village to visit with Lila, Nikola, Ana, and Traiko for Christmas and then heading up to Skopje to see some other volunteers (and shop at the huge, American-style grocery store!). We hope everyone had a safe, fun holiday season.


P.S. If anyone is interested, we can now be reached on Skype, the FREE internet phone service. All you need is a computer microphone and voi-la! (http://www.skype.com/)