May 24, 2008

The Tutor Dynasty

It's noon on a Sunday and the sun is directly overhead. It's a beautiful day. Green as far as the eye can see stretches in all directions courtesy of a healthy April rainfall and the recent turn to summer temperatures. But at the moment we're staring at the ground, fascinated, as Apostal maneuvers a miraculously simple irrigation project. Apostal is the husband of our Macedonian language tutor, Ratka. She's a teacher at the high school and he's the vice principal. Neither one speaks a word of English.

Like many Macedonians around us, Ratka and Apostal grow a wide assortment of produce in their yard and that's where we are, in the garden watching Apostal water the rows of potatoes. In lieu of a sprinkler or garden hose, he's running a stream of water from the house along the ground via a home-fashioned tube and then simply manipulating the soil to direct this mini stream in all sorts of directions throughout the garden.

All the while he's chatting us up in Macedonian. He's very difficult to understand, so Jillian and I spend most of the "conversation" nodding and chuckling. I'm sure Apostal knows we're not getting much of this, but he's clearly not bothered. So we stand, the three of us, enjoying the sun and watching the soil gobble up the water.

Ratka's disappeared into their small greenhouse to pull us up some greenleaf lettuce. It's called "salata" in Macedonian, which leads me to the inevitable joke each time Ratka hands us a plastic bag full of the fresh goods: "That's a lotta salata." [Tapping the microphone] Is this thing on?

We come here twice a week for lessons. No, Ratka doesn't speak any English, but it's not as difficult as our Macedonian friends, colleagues, and students assume. "But...she doesn't speak English," they say, furrowing their eyebrows in confusion. "I mean, how do you communicate?"

Well there's our dictionary. And there's pantomime. And drawing. And, no, Jillian and I aren't ready to take the SAT in Macedonian, but we learned a good deal of basic vocabulary during our Peace Corps training. You'd be amazed how far the verb "to go" can get you when you're really in a pinch.

Ratka's a Macedonian teacher by trade, so there's lots of focus on grammar. I'm not entirely convinced that knowing the imperfective and perfective forms of "to participate" is going to enrich my experience here, but no matter. Visiting our tutor (down the hill, over the bridge, to Ratka's house we go) is becoming more of a social date, especially now that summer has arrived. We look forward to many a "tutoring session" sitting outside, chatting with Ratka, trying Apostal's rakia, and enjoying the comfort of neighbors.

And eating a lotta salata.

May 17, 2008

Of Proms and Stone Weddings

In our first five months at site, we've learned that it's often all about the small, unexpected stuff. Before we got on that jetplane and came to Macedonia we envisioned--thanks to Peace Corps literature and our own idealism and imaginations--major events which we could walk away from and say, "Wow, now THAT was a cross-cultural exchange!"

But such exchanges come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it's big (explaining to a classroom of students the major differences between American and Macedonian schools) and at other times small (one-on-one coffee with the neighbor). And sometimes it's, well, prom night.
You know the drill: once a year you find yourself sitting at Olive Garden and two booths over is an awkward teenager in a tuxedo smiling behind the confidence of Dad's credit card in his wallet and his date dressed in this year's fashion and an oversized corsage. And you say, "Must be prom night. Pass the breadsticks." Because if it's not your prom, or your kid's prom, what's the big deal?

Well, Friday was prom night in our town and to call it a big deal would be a bit like saying the Oscars are just some awards show that happens every year. Mentioning the Oscars, in fact, feels quite apropos for what we witnessed outside the town's motel banquet hall. Around seven o'clock there was a general migration of people through the center of town so that, had we not heard about all of this beforehand, we certainly would have followed to see what all the fuss was about. Has an alien spaceship crash landed on the edge of town?

While there is something rather Borg-ish about communist-era architecture, it wasn't Star Trek we saw at the motel so much as just stars. A large crowd had gathered, paparazzi-style, to witness the arrival of the seniors in all their prom night glory. The path to the motel's entrance was lined with curious on-lookers and well-wishers like any decent red carpet. For their part, the seniors did a masterful job playing the whole thing up, arriving at staggered intervals, posing for pictures, and generally just taking in the celebratory atmosphere.

A few seniors invited Jillian and I inside for the festivities and so, feeling a bit like we'd been slipped a backstage pass, we strolled past the teeming crowd and stepped inside to take some photos with the students.

The next morning we chartered a van and took the debate team to Kratovo, a nearby town nestled in the crater of a long-extinct volcano. Known for its many stone bridges, Kratovo definitely has charisma to burn. The debates went very well (Again. The students are naturals.) and afterwards the PC volunteer in Kratovo and his students gave us a little walking tour of their town.

On our way out, we had the van driver take a small detour to the Stone Dolls. No, it's not a rock 'n roll band and, no, archaeologists haven't discovered Alexander the Great's toy collection--it's actually even more interesting. Five kilometers outside Kratovo on a dusty, bumpy dirt road is found a small collection of rock formations not unlike those found in the Badlands of South Dakota. Ancient deposits of volcanic ash, weathered and eroded over millions of years, have been transformed into what Macedonians refer to as "the wedding party."

As legend has it, a man was considering two women for marriage. When the day of the wedding arrived, he made his decision and the celebration began. The rebuffed woman, devastated by the man's choice, hexed the wedding party and everyone was turned to stone. Today, each of the stone "dolls" is labeled with a small sign: there's the bride, groom, godfather, bride's maid, etc. Part geology, part local folklore, the Stone Dolls were a nice finish to a very fun day.

And perhaps a cautionary tale about picking your prom date.

Two wedding guests...the toaster they brought as a gift turned to stone, too

Jillian and Bube

May 11, 2008

1 Weekend, 2 Debates, 21 Kilometers

Like many others who enjoy traveling, Jillian and I have a list of places we'd like to visit and things we want to do. It's really more of an ever-evolving informal list in our heads that we discuss and revise when we're killing time or making dinner. I'm sure many of our entries would be found on other travelers' lists--St. Petersburg, the Taj Mahal, a climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro, that new train from Beijing to Tibet. These are popular destinations for a reason and by going you join the ranks of the thousands (maybe millions) who came before and passed on the word to their friends and families.

But today we went in the other direction: we did one of those who's-ever-heard-of-that types of thing. We ran the Skopje Half-Marathon. And it was fantastic.

But let me back up a day.

As the title of the race suggests, it was held in Macedonia's capital city and I came into town a day earlier for a second round of debates with the high school team. Jillian was already there, courtesy of Peace Corps business, and she brought along a nice cadre of volunteers to watch the proceedings, which were held at an Embassy-sponsored locale called American Corner.

This time around the topics were the death penalty and the validity of the putting a price on human life. The second topic provided the day's best line. When asked if he were to be driving on the freeway at high speed and suddenly up ahead Mother Theresa was standing in one lane and Adolph Hitler in the other, who would he hit, one of my students, Darko, replied, "It'd hit the brakes."

Although my students found this debate quite a bit more frustrating than the previous session, I was again impressed with their dedication, hard-work, and enthusiasm. They just looked like they were enjoying themselves in the heat of the argument. The team arguing in favor of the death penalty--a position they don't personally support--did a particularly nice job rallying behind their position passionately. Isn't that what debate's all about?

Then we all went to McDonald's. And Jillian and I each got a Big Mac. And they were delicious.

On that healthful note, back to the race. The day's event card featured a full and half marathon as well as a 5k. Based on the results from last year, there were considerably more runners (and better ones) this year as the race undoubtedly continues to grow. A contingent of around twenty volunteers ran in either the 5k or half marathon (strangely, the full marathon was announced only about a month ago...not exactly a lot of prep time), so we all had plenty of encouragement.

The weather started out perfect before turning a bit too hot, but there were plenty of water stations. Oddly, these stations were also handing out lemon slices and sugar cubes, as if race organizers watched the Boston Marathon on TV but couldn't quite make out what the runners were being handed at the aid stations.

We both did very well. In fact, I managed my best-ever half marathon time, sneaking in just under 90 minutes for the first time. The course was completely flat, but I really owe my time to another volunteer who I was chasing the entire race. I never did catch him, but he pushed me to my limit. Jillian also ran hard and wound up just a minute or so off her PR (personal record). She finished in the top ten among women runners.

Towards the race's conclusion, as the sun was coming out and it was getting a bit uncomfortable, I was passed on the wide city boulevard by a small Yugo pulling a rickety old trailer. In the trailer was a home-made rakia distiller (Rakia being the national drink. Quite potent.). As I grimaced my way to the finish, I had to admit to myself that I honestly couldn't think of anything more unappealing at that moment than rakia. I ran through all sorts of horrific scenes, but, nope, a shot of rakia still sounded worse.

The next thing I knew the finish line was in sight. Jillian finished shortly thereafter and now we will forever be able to say we ran the Skopje Half Marathon. Oh sure, there's New York, there's Seattle, there's San Diego, but who among us has raced up People's Revolution Boulevard?

May 04, 2008

Where Europe Meets Asia

A hilarious 1990 song by a band called They Might Be Giants offers a brief geopolitcal lesson:
Istanbul was Constantinople/
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople/
Why did Constantinople get the works?/
That's nobody's business but the Turks

Last week we discovered that in a city as big and with as much rich history as Istanbul, there's plenty of room for Constantinople and Istanbul, for past and present, for East and West, for Christianity and Islam. From the sights to the sounds to the food, everything about the city spoke of a place on the edge of two very different continents. In short, it was one hell of a trip.

[Editor's note: To prevent this post from running as long as the Istanbul phone book (population: 12 million, fourth largest city in the world), I'll stick to the absolute highlights. As always, many more pictures can be found by clicking on "Our Photos" on the right sidebar.]

During our stay in the city, we (Jillian and I plus four other volunteers--Carolyn, Kathy, Erin, and Vanessa) stayed in a hostel in the most majestic section of town, Sultan Ahmed, which lies on the Golden Horn. We slept in the shadow of two of the most magnificent (and enormous) buildings we've ever seen, Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque.

Age before beauty: Ayasofya is a church built in the sixth century by Emperor Justinian of the Byzantine Empire. It's massive and is considered the height of Byzantine architecture with its towering dome. Its weathered exterior belies the elegant, cavernous scene we discovered upon entering.

And here's where things really got interesting. Ayasofya was the crown jewel of the empire until the city was finally conquered by the (Muslim) Ottoman Empire in 1453. Rather than pull a Taliban and destroy the church, Sultan Mehmet II chose to convert it into a mosque, which it remained until 1935 when it was made a museum. Thus the interior is decorated with symbols of both Christianity and Islam.

Directly across the Hippodrome (literally: "horse grounds", now a park) from Ayasofya is the Sultan Ahmed Blue Mosque, thus called because of the many blue tiles adorning the interior. Converting the old church into a mosque wasn't enough for the Ottoman ruler and so by 1616 a rival had been constructed. Not as large as Ayasofya, the Blue Mosque is far more beautiful from the outside. Its six minarets are the most for any mosque outside of Mecca (which apparently got the old sultan in a bit of hot water) and it is still a working mosque. Tourists are allowed inside, but all visitors must remove their shoes and women must cover their heads with scarves.

Venturing away from these historic temples, we found the streets of Istanbul busy and intoxicating. Witty merchants stood out in front of their shops, soliciting tourists and locals alike as they passed. A few of my favorite lines:
"How can I help you spend your money today?"
"May I hassle you a bit?"
"I have the perfect gift for your mother-in-law."

Real pros, clearly. For shoppers (this group doesn't really include me, but what can I say, I was traveling with five women) the Spice Bazaar and Grand Bazaar are must-sees. Affordable jewelry, scarves, pashminas, dresses, and perfumes abound. Notice I didn't mention anything for men, which explains why by the end of the trip the Jillian Gift Account had been depleted and the Dan Gift Account had been transferred into Jillian's name. Oh well. At least Effes, the local Turkish beer, was cheap.

When we first arrived the weather wasn't cooperating a whole lot, but by day three the sun was out and the temperature was into the 70s. We crossed over into an area of the city called Beyoglu which had a distinctly different feel from where we'd been. [Side note: Everywhere we walked I got the "Hey Sultan, is that your harem?" joke, followed by the kind of laugh that suggests the guy just thought that one up.] Climbing a hill, we accessed Galata Tower, a cylindrical structure built by the Byzantines as a lighthouse and then refurbished around 1350 to keep a watch on the city, most notably for fires. It now serves as an excellent, 360-degree vantage point from which to view the city, especially the Golden Horn and the entry point to the Bosporus Strait (more on that one later).

I really can't stress enough how impressed we were with the architecture of Istanbul. In addition to the aforementioned buildings, there were Topkapi Palace--sort of the Versailles of the Ottoman world--and Istanbul University. Both contained an air of regalness and sophistication, but also the sort of exoticness you'd expect in the last stop on the Orient Express.

Finally, our boat trip up the Bosporus. Istanbul rests on the Marmara Sea, a sort of inlet sea between the more mighty Aegean and Black Seas. To access the Black Sea from Istanbul, ships must pass through the Bosporus, a roughly 12-mile route lined with historic castles and palaces, as well as cute fishing villages and elegant seaside homes.

This was a real steal: the boat trip coast less than ten dollars and included a three-hour stopover in Anadolu Kavagi, one of those fishing villages and the last stop before the Black Sea. The weather was positively gorgeous as the boat made its 90-minute trek. We passed Rumeli Hisari, or Mighty Fortress of Europe, a castle built by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II (in only four months!) as he prepared to accomplish what many armies had tried and failed: to conquer Constantinople. At the age of 21 he succeeded and ushered in a few hundred years of Ottoman domination.

[On the subject of Turkish pride, one constant in Istanbul are the Turkish flags. They're everywhere--small, large, gargantuan. It's difficult to stand on any street corner and not see one flapping in the wind. Turkey is most certainly a very nationalistic society and that sentiment comes not from just being Turk, but from living in the Turkish state, which they see as a model of secularism and devoutness, modernity and tradition, and the bridge between Europe and Asia. The question of whether Turkey will someday join the European Union has been hotly debated as of late, and I'd be willing to bet that Istanbul is all for it. I couldn't help but notice that Turkish license plates look nearly identical to EU plates.]

The ship docked and we debarked for our three hours in Anadolu Kavagi, which lies on the Asian side of the Bosporus (much of Istanbul is in Europe). Above the town sits the ruins of Yoros Kalesi, a castle built by the Byzantine Empire and later used by the Ottomans. It's easy to see why a fortress was built there--the high position provides excellent views of the Bosporus and the Black Sea.

Concluding, I'd like to note that in their song about this city, They Might Be Giants also add this bit of dating advice:
All the girls in Constantinople/
Live in Istanbul, not Constantinople/
So if you've got a date in Constantinople/
She'll be waiting in Istanbul

If I learned anything from our trip, it's that in today's Istanbul it can be difficult to tell what era you might be standing near. Just to the right of Ayasofya is a tall stone structure, the last remnant of an old gate. At the base of that structure is the Milion, the zero-mile marker for the road that connected Rome to Constantinople. Transportation may have improved since then, but it seems safe to say that going east is still quite a trip.