February 25, 2008

Skopje Steve?

As far as I know, there aren't any groundhogs burrowing around in Macedonia. Maybe it's because nobody plays golf and few people have pristine lawns worth tearing up. I could be wrong, they might be around. Thus far we've seen an assortment of creatures here in the southern Balkans: pigs (many neighborhood yards), wild boars (dead, strapped to hoods of trucks), lynx (the 5-denar coin), stray cats and dogs (like, everywhere), and one lonely lizard (our bathroom).

Nope, no groundhogs yet.

But if there is a relative of Punxsutawney Phil among us (let's call him Skopje Steve or Radovish Ron), he most certainly did not see his shadow this year. Faster than you can sing the first verse of "I Got You Babe," winter pulled one heck of a disappearing act. Just last week we recorded our lowest temperature of the winter in town: -14 degrees celsius or 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

I guess that was winter taking a bow because since then, the weather has been beautiful and the forecast looks like more of the same. Today was the best thus far, in the mid-60s with plentiful sunshine. The town was in a downright jolly mood. Our otherwise taciturn neighbor invited me to coffee--though unfortunately I was on my way to school.

We've taken advantage of the nice weather to begin training for the Skopje Half Marathon in mid May. It looks as though there will be a rather large contingency of volunteers in the race, which I imagine has a solid international presence, given the embassies and assorted organizations in the city. Around our town, there aren't many runners (see also: zero) and so we get our fair share of odd looks. Despite the warm weather, my shorts really seem to throw people for a loop. Gee, they better hope it doesn't get much nicer. I'll be running shirtless.

That sound you hear is Jillian in the background saying, "No you will not."

P.S. Before signing off, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the two wonderful packages we received today, courtesy of the Kimes and the Walkers. And so with big smiles we'll be eating Kashi cereal for the next two weeks.

February 10, 2008

Future, Present, and Past

Last week in English class I was talking to the students about the future--nothing really grand, it's the topic of the current chapter in their textbooks. Students made all sorts of predictions about what the next fifty years might hold and I have to admit some of it was a surprisingly accurate description of things America already has.

Said one boy: "I think that we won't have to leave our house to do anything, like buy groceries. We can just sit at our computer and order them and they'll come to our house." I was debating whether I should mention the numerous billboards along American highways advertising just that when another teen raised her hand and said, "Maybe parents will be able to see where their children are using their mobile phone."

Good grief. "Well," I responded, "how about the more, ummm, distant future?"

Let me shift now to the present where, if computers had some kind of olifactory sensor, I would embed on this post the sensational frangrance that is currently dissemenating throughout the house: that's the smell of us cooking Mexican food. I don't mean good-as-we-could-manage-in-the-Balkans Mexican food. I'm talking about the real deal. Earlier this afternoon Jillian and I (with the help of the PC volunteer cookbook) made our own tortillas. Rolled 'em out and grilled 'em and let me tell you, in taste and texture they're right on the money.

Action shot: Jillian rolls out a torilla with a Nalgene bottle

From dough balls to tortillas in ten minutes flat

So now with the help of some taco seasoning sent overseas by the Kearney Family, Jillian is grilling up some chicken. The tomatoes and onions are diced and the rice and corn are boiling together with some chili powder. Shazam!

Sticking with the theme of ethnic foods (as that aisle in the grocery store is always called), we were in Skopje again on Thursday and Friday for some meetings with the Peace Corps and we made it out to a great Indian restaurant with some other volunteers. Skopje has one of just about every type of restaurant, Indian, Thai, Mexican, Irish, Japanese etc, though most of them are quite expensive.

Oho! Speaking of expensive, Jillian and I took what will go down as the most expensive bus ride of our lives while in Skopje. While taking the city bus across town from our friend Erin's to the PC office, the group of us were approached by Skopje transit police. Tickets, please. No problem, except we couldn't find our tickets. We had literally boarded the bus five minutes earlier and yet, to our increasing embarrassment, they were nowhere to be found. Finally, following a big to do, we had no choice but to pay the fine, equal to seven times the cost of the original ticket. That ride cost us more than the fare from Skopje back to our town.

Oh, don't think I'm not going to mention the insult that inevitably went along with this injury. No sooner had we handed over our cash to pay the fine than Jillian found said tickets and loudly waved them in the face of the police. Alas, they just shook their heads, said "too late," and got off the bus.

So following our meetings at the office, Jillian and I walked across Skopje to the bus station. Saving that ounce of cash seemed the least we could do after the morning's fiasco. Which brings me now to the past. As we walked across the city, we came across a couple items of interest. The first was a clock tower in the city center. The arms of the clock are stopped, frozen at the exact moment when a devestating, 6.1 magnitude earthquake struck the city--5:17am on July 26, 1963. This earthquake, in fact, explains the rather prominent dearth of historic buildings in Skopje. Most were wiped out that day, replaced by 60's-era communist concrete.

Just a few minutes later, we came upon a fascinating, though not terribly unusual, sight. A man had setup a makeshift tribute to Tito, the longtime ruler of Yugoslavia. In addition to several portraits and a bust, there was a small radio playing recorded speeches by the man still revered by many people in the former Yugoslavian states. There's even a term for this, "Yugonostalgia," and it reflects the feeling among some in this region that life was better in those days. Perhaps not freer, but somehow better. The New York Times recently ran an article about just this phenomenon.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some Mexican food to devour. Bye!

February 06, 2008

You Can See Macau From Up There...

Hi everyone. I'll start today's post with a pop quiz:

1) Where is Macau?

Now turn over your paper and put your pencil down. The answer will be provided at the end of the post. But I'll go ahead now and answer your other question: why am I asking this? Well, this week we were reminded of the human-ness of the post office, that giant machine of efficiency that sends millions of pieces of mail around the state, country, and world. In what is undoubtedly a cavernous and cold bunker with a high ceiling and several faded paintings of FDR, postal workers sort out the international mail. I'm guessing that every country gets its own slot, which would explain why a letter we received a few days ago was stamped, "Missent to Macau." Macedonia and Macau must have adjacent slots in that bunker and some bleary-eyed mail sorter--who couldn't care less where either place is--sent our mail down the wrong chute.

Speaking of missent, how about all those predictions that the Patriots would take their rightful place as the greatest team in football history and win the Superbowl with ease? At an English pub in Skopje, Jillian and I gathered with a surprisingly large number of volunteers and embassy staff to watch what proved to be an exciting game. Immediately following the game we hustled across the dark city to the bus station--and I do mean hustled, we had to run to catch our bus. A mere few hours after the Patriots lost in dramatic fashion, we were back in our town, back at our schools, and back in front of the students--but not before stopping in at the house to brew and subsequently drink a pot of coffee.

Before all that, we spent a day in Skopje with our friend Erin. Towering over the city from atop a nearby mountain is a giant cross. Apparently this thing caused some controversy with the local Muslim population when it was erected several years ago (reminding us a bit of the cross on Mount Soledad in San Diego). Accessible by car and several hiking trails, the cross looks rather grand and haunting from the ground. Upon further inspection, though, it is more reminiscent of a skyscraper-in-progress, a skeleton of a structure.

And it is enormous. There are stairs leading up to a platform on the cross' horizontal beam, but they looked like something out of an OSHA training video called "Workers Comp Just Waiting to Happen." So we stayed on the ground, preferring to sit in the stove-warmed hut that served hot tea to all the hikers.

We had made the hike alongside several of Erin's Macedonian coworkers at the local municipality. It just so happened that this particular trail begins and ends in front of the house of the mayor (Erin's boss) and before we knew it (though I must say, I saw this one coming a mile away), all of us were seated outside with he and his wife, eating a hearty lunch of cabbage, pork, and cheese and drinking their homemade wine. It was classic Macedonia: generosity that won't take no for an answer.

Now we're back in our town and caught up on our sleep. Next week we will begin working with a tutor to improve our Macedonian...we can't wait. Speaking of languages, yesterday I met a little boy, age 7, who got the impression that I can speak Macedonian based on our short introduction. After I walked away he asked his sister, one of my students at the high school, if I could come over to their house and translate cartoons for him. Well, if Tom and Jerry are talking about their favorite food or how to buy a ticket at the bus station, I'm all in.

Jillian is just plain thrilled to be really working, finally. She has her own room in the school, the "little auditorium," complete with a mini stage. And she's essentially autonomous, free to set her own schedule with the kids, advertise her English Club, and design and implement her own activities. So far the kids have been very interested and quite thrilled to have the opportunity to do so much speaking. As it looks now, Jillian will be holding sixteen classes each week, making her a virtual full-time teacher in Macedonia.

Answer to today's quiz: Macau is a Chinese territory (formally Portuguese) on the South China Sea.