March 28, 2008

This One's Gonna Sting

I think I speak for all of mankind, excluding a few phylogeneticists, taxodermists, biogeographers, and weirdos, when I say I want nothing to do with scorpions. Yeah, those eight-legged invertebrate bundles of joy. My dad went to Tucson, Arizona, when I was kid and came back with a rather large scorpion inside a rounded glass display. It was posed with its stinger raised, ready to strike. Pretty much ever since that moment scorpions have run a close second to tarantulas on my rather informal list of Things I Don't Want To See When I Turn On The Bedroom Light. I even hate that song "Winds of Change."

But don't take my word for it: incompetent henchmen have tried to kill James Bond no less than three times by placing a scorpion in his bed.

And Jillian's afraid of your basic honey bee, so you can imagine our collective delight when I found this charming fellow in the bathtub a few days back:

Perhaps most disturbing of all was how fast the little guy could move. He scurried back and forth at a pace normally reserved for, I don't know, cockroaches or something less venomous. Luckily he was encased by the bathtub's steep walls, which made him a temporary exhibit in our own little Pet-At-Your-Own-Risk Zoo. I say temporary because the trusty butt end of a Nalgene bottle soon ended this particular scorpion's foray into the human world. But maybe he was merely the exploratory committee for a much larger group residing near the waste water drain.

Two months ago we found a lizard on the bathroom floor. He was just kind of cute--we simply trapped him inside Tupperware and re-released him into the wild. But now a scorpion...what next? Might a cactus begin to grow up out of the toilet?

But it's fine. I found this reassuring tidbit on some all-about-arachnids website: "The sting of the European scorpion is mildly dangerous to humans but is unlikely to be fatal unless the person is very young, very old, infirm or particularly susceptible." That last qualifier is nice and vague.

March 22, 2008


This week brought tragedy to our town. A young English teacher at the high school who was also my counterpart--that is, I was working with her in classes and she was helping Jillian and I settle in and get accustomed to the town--died on Monday. Her name was Alexandra and she was twenty-eight years old.

She had been in the hospital, but there was no indication that it was anything life-threatening. Three days prior to her death, Alexandra had sent me a text message about her classes that I was covering. Things seemed normal. Apparently the situation deteriorated quite rapidly.

The town is devastated. Alexandra was quite popular--bright, outgoing, quick with a joke. Now her picture can be seen all over town, part of the traditional Macedonian death announcements posted on so many telephone poles. It reads (in Macedonian): "On 17/3/2008 died our beloved wife, daughter, sister, and daughter-in-law." There's even one posted on the main entrance to the high school. These announcements will remain up for one year or until the weather tears them down, whichever comes first.

The day of the burial was difficult. The teachers gathered at the high school and walked together with flowers to the house of Alexandra's parents. Jillian and I joined them. At the house it was something like a wake. We lined up, along with others who had come to pay their respects, and filed in slowly. It was an open casket, which I have to say neither Jillian nor I were really prepared for. Everyone lit a small candle and placed it in a large bowl of sand beside Alexandra's body.

The hardest part about this was seeing the students. Alexandra's class (she was their advisor of sorts), a group of 25 sophomores, were there together and really shaken by the whole thing. Hearing their sobs as they exited the home was probably the day's nadir.

During all of this Jillian and I felt a bit awkward--since we really hadn't known Alexandra all that well and because we are still newcomers to a very tight-knit community, we feared that perhaps we would be seen as imposing a bit. But really, I don't think anyone gave us much thought one way or the other.

A few hours later came the actual burial. Approximately one thousand people gathered for this event (the town's entire population is only 15,000). A small brass band played a song as the casket was moved from the house to the hearse. The song's tone surprised me--it didn't have any dirge-like qualities, but was almost upbeat. It contrasted enormously with the swelling procession walking behind the hearse.

At the graveyard it happened pretty quickly. Again the band played a short number, subsequently replaced by a chorus of sobs so clearly heard in the quiet of the cemetery. Many of the hundreds gathered there came forth to throw dirt on the casket before departing.

The high school has gone back to classes as normal, but it's clear that some of the younger teachers are barely holding it together.

During training, we had a session on Macedonian traditions, such as birthdays and weddings. I don't recall if funerals were mentioned, but it's no matter. This was less about the cultural differences between funerals at home and those here, and more about witnessing anguish in a small town. A true small town, where most people never leave except to attend university two hours away and then surely return. Alexandra had done just that and her family is undoubtedly known by every other family here. The burial was full of familiar faces: the woman who sells us our wine, our neighbors, and the guy who cut my hair and who once told me how much he admired Alexandra and how lucky I was to be working with her.

March 19, 2008

Of All the Towns in the World...

There are some pretty unlikely restaurants out there. Take, for instance, the Chinese restaurant in Barrow, Alaska (pop. 4,000), the northernmost town in North America. It's good to know that one can enjoy the General's Chicken or some sweet and sour pork while enjoying the midnight sun. Or, there's Penny's Diner in Bill, Wyoming (pop. 11), which feeds the Union Pacific railroad workers as they pass through.

I bring these places up because I've got one to add to the list: the Irish pub in Kumanovo, Macedonia. And I mean an honest-to-God Irish pub, not just some bar where they pour Guinness and serve shepherd's pie once a year. The owner is a young and congenial Irishman. I have no idea what brought him to Macedonia, but he's got himself a beautiful place near the city center. Brick walls, dark wood railings and tables, and old Guinness advertisements all lend the restaurant a very authentic feel. The beer selection and menu don't hurt, either.

So we had ourselves a genuine St. Patty's Day with some other volunteers who had gathered for the night. The bar was also crammed with Macedonians, though it was unclear if they understood why this particular Monday night was so exciting to a gathering of Americans. There was a live band alternating between traditional Irish tunes and more contemporary covers, and we were soon singing along, much to the detriment of our voices the next day.

As Jillian sipped on her green beer (yeah, the guy had really thought of everything) she commented on how bizarre and, yet, completely great it felt to be in that environment. "We could be sitting in a bar back home right now," she said, marveling at the atmosphere. It was just so...St. Patty's Day.

The staple of any healthy St. Patty's Day

Jillian gets into the spirit of things

March 13, 2008

We Speak For Дрвата

Last year, due to an unusually dry and mild winter and a subsequently scorching summer with unfavorable winds, much of the Balkan peninsula was ravaged by forest fires. The situation was particularly acute due to the lack of resources available with which to fight the blazes--European Union nations pledged fire trucks, helmets, and helicopters. Ultimately, almost eight thousand acres were affected--no small sum in a nation of Macedonia's size--and a national emergency was declared.

On Wednesday the entire student population of Macedonia was mobilized to combat the damage done last summer. Instead of going to classes all students and teachers from both the high schools and the elementary schools went into the surrounding foothills and fields and planted trees. If this sounds like a dream come true for the Arbor Day Foundation, the project's title, Денот На Дрвотo, or Day of the Tree, seemed a bit more befitting of that old orange environmentalist. You know, the one who spoke for the trees.

And it happened: Mid-morning arrived, as did the droves of teenagers to a parking lot near the center of town. Attendance was (more or less) taken and soon the whole lot of us were ascending like lemmings into the hills. It was an unexpectedly warm and sunny day. After about thirty minutes of climbing we were considerably high above town and suddenly stumbling upon holes...pre-dug holes, just waiting for us!
If that doesn't sound like the work of the Lorax...

Now, before you get to the bottom of this post and ask, Why is Dan posing triumphantly beside a weed? I should note that when I say we "planted trees," what I mean is we buried these rather wimpy twigs into oversized dirt holes. It was sort of like putting Shaquille O'Neal's wedding band on a toddler. But we were assured that they will grow and while the resulting trees may not be the prettiest things you've ever seen, they'll contribute greatly to soil integrity and help prevent erosion.

Oh, by the way, we have school on Saturday as a result of this tree day. I guess there really is no such thing as a free lunch.

Jillian hard at work


Climb, lemmings, climb!

March 08, 2008

Making a List, Checking it Thrice

Back in February 2006 I wrote a story for the Newport Mercury about personality tests--you know, those questionnaires that yield a supposedly accurate description about what kind of employee or spouse you might be in the hopes of furthering “better communication, a greater understanding of self and others, and a harmonious, productive environment." These tests typically spit out a four-letter designation for the taker, e.g. INSP or ESTJ.

I'm not a huge fan of these tests and tend to think they do a really great job of telling us things about ourselves that are obvious to a 7-year old. Take for instance the revelation that Jillian is a planner who likes to be organized. Yeah, I noticed. I sometimes forget that her middle initial stands for Laurel and not Lists. Of course, this is mostly a gigantic windfall for me (check out our meticulously well-managed budget), but, really, why does the book I'm currently reading keep getting reshelved?

She also loves calendars. On our desktop is her latest creation, a comprehensive Kearney schedule for the foreseeable future. We'll call it the One Year Plan. Looking at it this morning, I was struck by how busy we're going to be starting in about, oh, a week. Between trips with the debate club (more on that later), vacations (Istanbul, France, Spain), family visits (Matt, Kathy), Peace Corps training sessions, and summer camps, it's hard not to be pretty excited about what promises to be a packed spring and summer.

First, those summer camps. Thanks to Jillian's extensive experience with California Girls State, she landed the coveted position of Program Coordinator for Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World), a week-long leadership camp for the best and the brightest young ladies from across Macedonia's geographic and ethnic diversity. This year it will be held in one of the country's picturesque national parks. Jillian has been hard at work already, revamping the handbook among other things. Did I mention she's organized?

There is also a boys leadership camp, which I hope to be taking part in as a counselor or instructor--hopefully in the area of backpacking/hiking/outdoor cooking or civic discussions.

On the topic of civic discussions, I've begun putting together a debate team at the high school. There is a network of other volunteers who have debate teams at their schools and over the last week we've been solidifying a spring schedule for competitions. For my part, I'm seeing a lot of enthusiasm among some of my students for this idea and they relish the thought of traveling to other schools and facing off over questions such as, "Should assisted suicide be legal?" or "Can the assassination of a dictator be justified?"

Not being a veteran of the debate circuit in high school or college, I'm crash coursing myself in the procedures, terms, and strategies of the thing so that I might give my students some instruction and preparation. I'm sure their first competition will be just as nerve-racking for me as for them.

As a final note, I want to mention one of our biggest sources of amusement over here: The Macedonian English-Language T-Shirt. It rates about a 9.5 on the Unintentional Comedy Scale. It's very popular here to have English writing on shirts, coats, notebooks, and bags, though clearly these inscriptions were designed by a non-native speaker. Often nonsensical, sometimes borderline offensive, always funny. Some recent high(low)lights:

Come On Admit It, You Know You've Got the Hot For Me
Los Angeles Cocaine Business (this one reflects a rather sad perception of America)
You're My Wrath Child (what on Earth?)

I leave you with this picture...the two of us with our friend Erin after a trip to the local monastery, where we just couldn't resist picking up a t-shirt (they're in cyrillic, hopefully they make sense):