October 17, 2008

Before We Go...

Unfortunately this post has to be much shorter than I'd want. It's Friday night and we're packing up for our trip beginning tomorrow to all the former Yugoslav republics: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Montenegro. We're renting a car with some fellow PCVs and looking forward to seeing the Balkans, an area brimming with fascinating history and recent tragedy. But for now we're just stressing and trying to cram everything we need for the 10 days into a single backpack (it'll be small car with no room for lots of stuff) and making sure the house is kitten safe for the next couple of weeks. A couple of of our students are looking after little Arye while we're away.

Speaking of those students, the season's first high school debate was held at a nearby town last weekend and our kids shined. Seriously. There was a great moment when the crowd was struck silent as one of our girls served up her rebuttal. As one of my other students (a first-time debater) remarked: "I didn't realize Tina could be so confident when speaking." Needless to say, both teams were victorious on the subjects of parental responsibilty when a minor commits a crime and the efficacy of Macedonia's new one-computer-per-child policy. But most importantly, the students from all the competing schools had a great time hanging out, getting to know each other and taking part in something a little different.

My debating superstars, Bube and Tina

The debaters, post-debate

Our other major accomplishment these last two weeks has been getting our adult English classes off the ground. We have beginner, intermediate and advanced classes. The beginner class is particularly fun, as we get to start from ground zero--the alphabet, greetings, introductions, etc. The adults coming to this course are very enthusiastic and have great attitudes about learning a new language. Jillian and I have tried to apply our own impressions as language learners to these classes, remembering what worked and what didn't when we were first learning Macedonian. The atmosphere is thus far very positive.

Sorry, I've got to stop there. The kitten is tormenting Jillian as she tries to do the last of the dishes. This mostly involves jumping into the sink and licking the suds. What a weirdo. See you in two weeks!

October 13, 2008

Ajvar Revisited

Nationalism is a hard thing for an American to understand, and here's why: it seeks to define a nation--its customs and traditions, politics, religion, borders--through the lens of a single ethnicity. As nationalism tells it, everyone gets their own country; everyone else can just stay out. After all, you've got your own country, don't you? Ergo, Romanians live in Romania. Serbians live in Serbia. Macedonians live in Macedonia. Etc. Some obvious problems arise.

So you can see why this might be a difficult concept for an American to internalize. There's no such thing as an ethnic American. Sure, we have our own go-nowhere arguments about what is and what isn't patriotism, but there's a strong consensus in America that the ideas guiding our country are far stronger than any single ethnic identity. America is great because the Irish and Italians built New York, the Chinese built the Pacific railroad, the Mexicans built the California agricultural machine, the Germans built the industrial Midwest and so on. We embrace what various groups have given the country.

What is this--Dan's feeling a bit nostalgic this evening? Actually, no. But last weekend had me thinking about these things when Jillian and I stopped over at our landlord's home to help them with ajvar, that traditional Macedonian spread/paste/condiment prepared from peppers and other vegetables. It's that season (autumn) and you really can't go more than a hundred meters without catching that wonderful smell wafting from some backyard.

Mare stirs the pot

Macedonia officially recognized the sovereignty of Kosovo on Thursday and the small transistor radio in our landlord's garage told the tale of jam-packed talk radio discussing the subject. It's a touchy one, as it involves not only Serbia's historical claim to the region, but also Albanian claims in an otherwise Slavic area. So there's lots of nationalism involved.

But about this garage...it's not actually a garage, but an old Turkish house dating back over one hundred years. Now rotting and looking vaguely dangerous, it's crumbling ground floor is used by Todor and Mare as a storage area. It's absolutely great. First off is that Turkish thing I mentioned. A century ago the town (and most of Macedonia) was inhabited by Turks as part of Ottoman rule, so the only truly "old" buildings in town were built by them. This house I'm describing includes a single-person sauna that resembles a walk-in closet and beautiful hand-crafted dark wood ceilings and doors.

As we sat outside this house stirring ajvar, sampling ajvar, drinking rakia and talking about the perfect fall weather, I admired this makeshift garage. It looks like something out of a Rockwell painting, with every half-empty oil can, rusting bucket and wood beam in its right place. The floor is dirt and the window on the opposite wall is caked with grime.

Meanwhile, out in the sun, we stirred. The ajvar sat in a pot the size of an old-fashioned bathtub over a fire and it required continuous stirring lest it become scorched. Every fifteen minutes Mare would pull out a spoonful and check the consistency like a mad scientist (truth be told, she does have the same hair as Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future. One-point-twenty-one gigawatts!). Then she would add more sunflower oil. Any illusions Jillian and I had previously maintained about the potential healthiness of ajvar were shattered watching Mare pour 3.5 liters of oil into this concoction.

The sun moved a bit lower and it was time to jar the ajvar. Jillian stuck her blue plastic funnel into the first jar and began scooping, and all over Macedonia this exact process was under way on a warm Sunday. It truly was a Rockwell painting; sentimental, perhaps, but a glorious old tradition that has nothing to do with ethnicity and everything to do with autumn traditions in the Balkans.

Then came the scara, or barbeque. The remaining embers from the fire were transferred to a small grill and Todor ordered me with a flick of his hand to take over the grilling. A typical ending to any Macedonian chore: good food and great drink. The ajvar turned out delicious and we came away from with our own jar, though the reward was really in the privilege of helping to make it.

Filling those jars

Grilling up some lunch

October 06, 2008


As the season really gets going (and cools down--did someone say mid-50s?) Jillian and I have taken up the task of greatly expanding the pool of English language learners in our town. Last school year was all about the elementary (Jillian) and high school (Dan) kids, but this time around we're reaching out in both directions through the community's preschool and our own self-started adult classes. At this rate, by next year we'll have our lessons included in Orthodox Last Rites and on womb-penetrating CDs, right next to Mozart.

Our adult classes start in earnest tomorrow, so for now let's just stick with the little ones. We teach English at the local community center/preschool for Roma children.

Ok, two things need amplification in that last sentence. First off, it's perhaps a bit of an exaggeration to say we're "teaching English." These little tikes have the attention span of our cat, so we can get in a few things (today it was "car, bus, bicycle, airplane,") before the restlessness boils over and they just want to play. Which, really, is totally fine. And fun.

And second: who are Roma children? As wild as this region of the world is for soccer, these are not children raised to be superfans of Italy's famous team, Roma. In fact they are part of an ethnic group that is well represented in Macedonia. Well represented, but not well treated. The history of this group is long and tortured (as in, many amongst them have undoubtedly faced torture over the centuries) and has left the Roma people on the fringe of society throughout southeastern Europe. They have hardly integrated and face intense discrimination. Is it there skin color (they originate from India)? Is it their language, Romani (though they also learn Macedonian)? Is it there customs, still preserved centuries later?

Broader questions like that don't seem particularly important when we walk to see friends and pass by the Roma part of town. In a community of 15,000, the Roma number somewhere around 500. The street is unpaved and dusty. Their homes have not been brought into the city water system, evidenced by the appearance of the few Roma children who attend Jillian's elementary school. No Roma children attend the high school, they've all dropped out by then. In a town (and country) struggling with unemployment, the Roma community here faces a virtual 100% jobless rate.

But one man who has a job is Safet. He is a one-man organization called Napredok-Anglipe--it's Macedonian and Romani for "forward." He operates a sort of community center that also serves as a preschool for Roma children. It's housed in the bottom floor of the preschool for Macedonian children and is (by local standards) a rather nice little spot. There are several cute rec rooms and a nice classroom with miniature desks and chairs and donated toys and games.

Safet came to us. He literally rang our doorbell one morning and asked us to join him at his center. He worked with another PCV several years ago and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. And while we're slightly wary of his enthusiasm towards our alleged ability to tap infinite (unnamed) financial sources--this is a recurring theme here--we absolutely love the opportunity he's given us to work with these children. What a difference from the high school!

[A funny aside involving Safet: When we were planning our work in the preschool, the original idea was that we would hold classes and activities with both Roma and Macedonian children in mixed classes. Well, this fell through...something about Macedonian parents wanting nothing to do with that. Anyway, when we went to speak to the director of the Macedonian preschool we found that we couldn't understand her at all. I mean, at all. She speaks ridiculously fast and shows no interest in slowing down for us. So Safet was translating into slower, simpler Macedonian (he's actually quite easy to understand). She would speak, and then he would speak and we'd get it.]

So we've been to the center a few times now. Like I mentioned above, we're not so much teaching English as we are simply playing with the kids while speaking English. Sure, we've had a few minor lessons with them--hello, stand up, sit down, make a circle, etc--but the kids seem to get just as much out of us sitting on the floor with them crashing toy cars (the boys and Dan) or drawing flowers on the chalkboard (the gals and Jillian). Ditto for us, as well. Being with these little children is proving to be such a wonderful experience and distraction from some of the frustrations with other projects, ideas and general life stuff.

This seems to be working out fine with everyone at the preschool. We'll just keep moving forward.