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.


Hotel Concierge:: said...


Well the Rathmann household still has decorations up! The timer for the tree still goes on a 6 pm evernight. We have un-plugged the outside lights though!

Happy New Year!


Anonymous said...

Dan and Jillian, Zdravo, Your Twelve Moments of Christmas along with the pictures was really a fine present to all of us less fortunate to have the adventures that you are now enjoying. Your Blogs are the best on the Internet as far as we are concerned. We tune in each day in antisipation of your next adventure. Love to you both. Grandpa and Grandma K