November 19, 2008

At Night a Candle's Brighter than the Sun

If you've been following this blog for the last eight months, you may remember our experience on "The Day of the Tree" back in March. That was the day we ascended the hills surrounding our town and planted, umm, trees in pre-dug holes. All municipal workers in Macedonia celebrated this sort of Arbor Day by planting a tree. Ours was more like a weed, but we were assured it would one day be something like a real tree.

Well, that must have been a smash success, because the government chose today for an encore performance. In our town (where, I must add, you can still make out a patch of planted trees on one of the hillsides that spells out TITO) the plan called for all high school students and teachers (plus two PCVs) to be shipped out in buses to a nearby village. Except...the school couldn't find anyone to drive us out there. Apparently the local bus companies weren't feeling particularly altruistic. So eight small trees were planted in the front yard of the school. It took about fifteen minutes. And I spent the midday at a neighbor's house drinking rakia. Not exactly a thrilling tale.

So instead let me take this opportunity to talk about Bube and Tina, who have received passing mentions in previous posts. Both young women are seniors at the high school here in town. Since April, Jillian and I have been working with them as they ready their applications to colleges in the U.S. As December fast approaches, both girls are putting their final touches on essays, translating pertinent financial documents, and studying for the upcoming SAT Subject Tests. It's been a busy last few months.

Macedonia's university system leaves much to be desired. In addition to the usual sorts of things that plague state-sponsored schools (lack of funds, aging infrastructure, trouble hiring top-notch faculty), the universities here are dogged by consistent complaints of corruption with regard to grading. And the icing on the cake: degrees from these schools are generally not recognized by the western developed nations. So finding a job outside Macedonia after college (at least, one that puts your degree to work) is extremely difficult.

This situation is not lost on the best and brightest in the country's high schools. Bube and Tina are both members of the debate team and it was during a spring practice for an upcoming competition that they first mentioned the idea of studying in America to us. Honestly, we couldn't think of two young people who deserve it more--these girls are really special.

We're used to the American mentality with respect to teenagers, a mentality that says they need to be occupied every minute of every day during the high school years. School work, clubs, sports teams, music lessons, work, etc., idleness is not an option. And while this is generally a good strategy for keeping teenagers out of trouble, it also serves the purpose of rounding out that resume for when college applications come calling. As applying to universities (and their money) becomes increasingly competitive, good grades and a winning smile just aren't enough; today's high school student, we are told, must have a resume just dripping with positive life experiences.

Now, I'll be the first to commend any American teenager who goes out there and joins the high school band, plays soccer, writes for the school newspaper, works a job on the weekends, studies Chinese on Thursday nights, and still gets straight A's. But it's worth noting--and here's where the gap between America and our Macedonian town becomes gaping--that all those activities are available for American students. For many kids, there's literally too much to choose from. Unless you've got Hermione Granger's Time Turner, there's simply not enough hours in the day to do it all.

Not so here. There are but a handful of activities available and most kids simply don't do them. It seems that among most parents and teachers, there isn't any sort of emphasis on keeping young people engaged. And it's contagious: most kids feel no inclination whatsoever to get engaged. I've seen this on many occasions at school when offering an activity such as English Club or an essay-writing contest. Twenty or thirty students promise they will be there. Three show up.

I've always liked a certain line from the Sting song "Englishman in New York." Comparing his British restraint and modesty to the notoriety he finds in New York, Sting sings, "At night a candle's brighter than the sun." I've found this poetic turn of a phrase applies quite nicely to Bube and Tina. Against a background of apathy and little opportunity, they stand out. They literally have created opportunities for themselves. Debate is one example--though it was my idea, they took it and ran with it--but perhaps the best example is Healthy Kids Day Camp, which we put on last summer. That camp simply would not have happened without Bube and Tina. Over the course of less than two months, they built the camp from the ground up, designing lessons, finding resources and handling the headaches that came with putting on such a production in a community that initially looked on in suspicion.

And we've been equally impressed with their preparation for college. For the last few months we've held SAT study sessions four times per week and the girls have been very diligent in their studies. With the SAT behind them and the TOEFL (English test) and SAT II approaching, along with the submission deadlines for their schools, the end of this process is near. Then the finger-crossing begins.

November 09, 2008

Wishful Thinking

Funny, but it took coming to Macedonia for us to learn our English grammar. Prior to our Peace Corps service, I would have answered all of the following questions with a simple, "Beats me." -- What is the second conditional? How do we construct the future perfect simple tense? When do we use 'going to' versus 'will' in the future tenses? Etc. This is not stuff we learned in high school (lament conservatives), where instead the focus was reading, writing and critical thinking. Speaking and writing in (mostly) grammatically correct sentences for me was like wiggling my ears...I can do it, but I can't explain how I do it.

Being in the classroom has been quite educational. Much like American foreign language classes--at least the way I remember them--Macedonian students learn a very grammar-intense English. Conversation is minimal and as a result there are a whole slew of kids who can explain reported speech in excruciating detail but can't carry a conversation beyond "How are you?" During my first few months in the high school I often found myself hanging on by a thread as I guided students through exercises--literally figuring out modal verbs just before I explained them ("So that's what those are called!").

Occasionally students will ask me over to their home to help review some material or study for a test. Today was one of those days--three juniors got together to study and invited me over for some lunch and passive/active voice. It was about as much fun as hanging out with three 16-year old girls who talk in rapid Macedonian could really be for 4 hours, but the real payoff came towards the end of the visit, after lunch. One of the girls, Mare, read my fortune.

It's hard to overstate the generational divide between the high school students and their grandparents here in Macedonia. Men and women in their 70s, born before the Second World War, have mostly known only scarcity, hardship, communism and turmoil. Their beliefs and practices are from another time and I sometimes wonder if, looking around their town today with its plentiful, western-style grocery market and a mobile phone to the ear of every other person on the street, they wonder what happened. It's common to see a teenager on a moped pass an old man riding his donkey.

But for all this seismic cultural shifting, reading fortunes in coffee cups has survived, even thrived as a conversation piece. As we've mentioned before, Macedonians drink Turkish-style coffee in their homes. The beans are ground to a powder and then boiled in water. The result is a rather thick and strong brand of coffee with a layer of sludge at the bottom of the cup. It is in this sludge that fortunes are read. The first time we saw this it was at our landlord's house. His mother (age: unknown. It's believed she was born somewhere around 1913, but even she's not sure) and a friend had just finished their coffee when they began this little ritual. At the time I thought it a very charming, soon-to-be-lost custom.

I was wrong. Turns out it survives among teenage girls and today I had one such lass read my fortune. The four of us had just finished our coffee when the girls urged me to turn my cup over on the saucer. Some runny sludge spilled out the sides, but most clung to the bottom of the tiny cup. Perhaps ten minutes later we all removed our cups from the saucers and placed them on a paper towel, still upside down. Another ten minutes elapsed. By now the sludge had semi-solidified and formed all sorts of strange patterns in the cup. Then Mare read my fortune. For such a silly girl, she became awfully serious and concentrated while she examined my grounds, speaking in rapid-fire, monotone Macedonian. Another of the girls, better in English, translated. She said:

"You will meet a black person. You will learn a secret about this black person. Something that happened many years ago--"
--I stopped them here to see if they were messing with me. "You mean Obama?" I asked, smiling (the election was big news here). "O-what?" they said. They were serious, so I let them continue.
"--You have a conversation in you future, a very important conversation."

Ok. The formal part of the fortune was over, but I still had to cast my wish. This consisted of dipping a finger in the grounds and then wiping that smudge on the outside of the cup as I made my wish. Mare read the results, like she was conducting fingerprint analysis:

"This wish has a very good chance of coming true, but you must have that conversation."

So my fortune and my wish will apparently bisect at this "conversation," sometime in the future and perhaps with a black person. Well, I sure hope this conversation isn't in Macedonian. I'll undoubtedly miss the finer details of my wish coming true.

November 03, 2008

Balkan Express, part 2

There's no toll booths on the highways of Slovenia. Nothing but smooth sailing around that tiny country. That's the good news. The bad news is that when we entered Slovenia from Croatia we had to pay 35 Euros--something like 45 bucks--for the highway tariff. It came with a happily colored little sticker for the upper right windshield. We raised our eyebrows at the border guard, to which he informed us that the sticker is good for one year. Great.

We weren't going to be in Slovenia for one year, only three days. We were in the midst of an all-out, fast-as-you-can Balkan road trip (see previous post below) and as we drove away from Ljubljana, a mere 45-minute drive from either the Croatian, Austrian or Italian border we realized what a colossal waste of 35 Euros that sticker was. I think secretly Frank and I computed how many beers we could get for that, and Jillian, Kathy and Erin mentally measured the size of hand-crafted Slovenian bracelet that would fetch.

Anyway, an hour or so later we hit the Croatian coast and forgot all about it. For Jillian and I, recent inhabitants of San Diego, Seattle, Rhode Island and Maine, this was our first real glimpse of ocean (ok, it was actually the Adriatic Sea, but close enough) in quite awhile, if you discount the fleeting glance of the Black Sea we caught on our boat trip north of Istanbul. The Adriatic did not disappoint, nor did our first stop along its shores in Split.

Old Split is a resort town. There were at least four cruise ships docked during our night there. Well, it's easy to see why--the seaside is lined with palm trees and cute cafes and the interior is a fascinating historical tour of the powers of the Mediterranean. See, Diocletian, a rather famous Roman emperor (mostly for torturing a whole lot of Christians) was born just a few miles from present-day Split and he chose this spot for his retirement home, er, palace. The thing took seven years to build and cost (only!) two thousand slaves their lives. More recently, Split was an important trading outpost for the Venetians, the very definition of a maritime power, for a few centuries beginning around 1400. So today, Split is an awesome mix of Italian architecture built around Roman ruins. One store boasts that it stands in the place of Diocletian's dressing room.

While I'm on the subject of Venetian towns, let me skip ahead to Dubrovnik, another Croatian beauty further down the coast. Its just downright unfair how beautiful this town is--there was a collective gasp inside our little white car when the old, walled-in city came into view. Apparently Dubrovnik had been quite the trading post in its day, rivaling any city on the Mediterranean. During the wars of the 1990s, the Serbians, for no other reason than spite, shelled the city and caused extensive damage. Not that one can see evidence of that today--it looks fantastic.

Dubrovnik rests on a tiny jut of land and, as I mentioned, is completely walled-in. The streets are cobblestone and narrow and there are several grand plazas marked with bronze statues and clocks. For obvious reasons, it appears prominently in Croatian tourism commercials, seen often on Macedonian television under the slogan, "See the Mediterranean as it once was." I can't argue with that. Dubrovnik was perfectly and undilutedly old-world. We were nearly giddy as descended down the hill from our rented room (the back of a nice lady's house), crossed the drawbridge (not kidding) and strolled the streets, our noses full of ocean scent.

If Dubrovnik was an idyllic reminder of a faraway time and place, our stopover between it and Split was not. Between those coastal towns was the turnoff to Bosnia, that country whose name became a byword for horror and bloodshed between 1992 and 1995 when hundreds of thousands lost their lives. Today it is a relatively peaceful, albeit struggling, multi-ethnic country comprised of Croatians (Catholic), Bosniaks (Muslim) and Serbs (Orthodox). Indications of disharmony were immediately apparent: In Bosnia road signs are written in both the Latin alphabet (for the Croatians and Bosniaks) and the Cyrillic alphabet (for the Serbians). In the first major town we came upon, on literally every sign we saw, the Cyrillic had been spray painted over in black. This was an ethnically Croatian town.

Then we came to Mostar, one of the front lines in a war that pitted the three groups against each other. Mostar was famous for its old bridge, a bridge that stood for 457 years until a Croatian mortar destroyed it during the war. And the bridge wasn't the only thing. Mostar had been almost completely razed during the conflict and around the periphery of the old town, many buildings stand as testaments to the destruction. Calling these structures bullet-riddled doesn't even scratch the surface. It's amazing many are still standing.

But inside the old town it's a different story. Mostar has been reborn, it's bridge rebuilt. Seeing pictures from the devastation, it's hard to believe it's the same place. And perhaps more important than the rebuilding, Mostar has an indescribable spirit, palpable to us visitors, a mix of sorrow and triumph, beauty and ugliness. Atop the highest peak overlooking Mostar is a large cross; from the old town we could count no less than ten minarets from the community mosques. It is very much a divided city.

After Mostar we continued on to Sarajevo. Maybe no city in recent history has suffered such a reversal of fortune. In 1984 it hosted the Winter Olympics. By 1992 it was under siege, surrounded by the Serbian (Yugoslavian) army. Much larger than Mostar, Sarajevo nonetheless shared in much of that aura. We had the good fortune of staying with a Turkish police officer who is living in the city as part the EU Police Mission. His apartment building, like many in Sarajevo, has the scars of war. He proved to be an excellent tour guide, going way out of his way to show us around and tell us much about the city's recent, tragic story.

His narration was highlighted by a trip to the Tunnel. As the Serbians besieged Sarajevo from the surrounding hills, there was but a narrow strip of land that they did not occupy. This was the airport and it was controlled by the (supposedly neutral) United Nations. The only way for the cold, hungry, terrorized citizens of Sarajevo to get supplies and for its army to get weapons was via an underground tunnel built from the edge of the city for a length of about 800 meters under the airport. The Serbians knew of this tunnel, which is why the entrance and exit to the tunnel were dubbed "Sniper Alley." Today a small portion of the tunnel remains for visitors to tour. At about 5 feet high and 3 feet wide, it is a stark, stunning leftover of those four terrible years.

Old Town Sarajevo is a charming jumble of windy streets of cafes and shops. We had the best burek we'd ever tasted there (a pie of meat or cheese and phylo, ubiquitous in Macedonia) and our host took us to a cozy Turkish restaurant for some late night Turkish tea and rice pudding. He talked about Sarajevo before the conflict, about its ethnic diversity and religious tolerance. In Sarajevo, he explained, mixed marriages were not uncommon. The road back to that place will be long and difficult.

We drove out the next day with swirling emotions. For Americans, the last two decades have had their share of tragedies "over there," whether it be Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur or Congo. And while each one calls up that old question about America's use of power--world's policeman?--it ultimately has seemed easier or more prudent to defer to the international community and the carrot of diplomacy. I'm not necessarily condemning this strategy--certainly our tenacity at the negotiating table helped end the Bosnian crisis. But seeing this country up close, with its still ravaged buildings and divided population, well, it makes those decisions seem just a little bit harder.

Our final stop was in Kotor, Montenegro, a picturesque little sea town on wonderfully wild Kotor Bay. Though the old town could not measure up to the beauty we had seen in Dubrovnik, the old city walls extended well up into the adjacent hillside. This offered us the chance to climb the 1,500 stairs and take in the town and bay from far above.

Then we drove home through the ridiculously mountainous and windy country, dropped the car off and returned to Macedonia, exhausted and totally happy about this choice of trip. Sure, we may not want to hang out again any time soon after being trapped in that small car for eleven days, but seeing the Balkans, the former Yugoslavia, made being in this part of the world all the more special.

November 02, 2008

Balkan Express, part 1

So I originally jotted down this post on some graph paper while sitting in the small auditorium of NOVA High School, an American-financed private school in Skopje. I was waiting for two students, the previously-praised Bube and Tina, to finish taking their four-hour SAT and I was operating on even less hours of sleep after a Halloween party the night before. In case you're wondering I went as Jesus, an idea which, I have to be honest, probably wouldn't have even occurred to me without the daily volleys of "Jesus!" (pronounced in the Spanish "hay-soos" manner) I hear from the town children. At first just sort of weird, being called the Messiah is now just downright hilarious.

Jillian was not present to see the costume manifestation of my newfound (son of) God complex, because she was home beginning the decompression process--on Thursday we returned from a whirlwind tour of the former Yugoslav republics, a trip that took us to elegant Austro-Hungarian streets, to incredible Adriatic coastline and to sad, powerful reminders of recent conflict. Really sweetening the deal was our rental car and the three other volunteers we shared this trip with. This two-thousand kilometer scramble was the very essence of the Road Trip. The Magical Mystery Tour is dying to take you away...

One of the few annoying elements to this trip was the multiple currencies--four in total, as only two countries used the same--and things got off to an auspicious start when we converted some Macedonian denars into Serbian dinars at a joint that took--get this--a 25% cut in the transaction. I know, I know, we didn't really think things through too well, but we really needed some Serbian bills for the nearly constant (and super pricey) toll booths that dot the Balkan highways.

We cruised through southern Serbia as quickly as possible, eager to get to Belgrade. Serbia is singular among the Balkan countries for its rather intense anti-Western, anti-EU, pro-Russia stance. Much of this can be traced to its historic partnership with Russia, the wars of the 1990s and recent events surrounding Kosovo's independence. We saw a lot of evidence of this on the streets of Belgrade, where concrete walls, steps and sidewalks were prominently and often tagged with spray paint condemning the EU and supporting accused war criminals such as the now-on-trial Radovan Karadzic.

Not that we felt any threat or tension as Americans. On the contrary, people were very friendly and mildly amused at our use of the Macedonian language (very similar to Serbian). All told, though, Belgrade was not a particularly impressive city--certainly large and interesting after coming from Skopje, but somehow lacking in that certain savoir faire and, in retrospect, it pales in comparison to the other towns and cities we visited. To wit, we ate dinner in a cavernous, traditionally-styled restaurant that served the exact sort of food we'd find here in Macedonia. So we looked forward to Croatia.
[Food side note: Perhaps the most fascinating thing I saw in Belgrade was a McDonald's. A plaque beside the entrance reads: "The first McDonald's restaurant in Belgrade was opened on March 24th, 1988." With Yugoslavia--and the worldwide communist system--teetering on the verge of collapse, this McDonald's must have been a huge deal when it opened. More than simply Big Macs and fries, wasn't this restaurant the very thing the people wanted? The consumer choices the West had always taken for granted?]

Before I describe Zagreb, some important history: by crossing the border into Croatia, we were entering the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Current-day Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia were all part of that multi-ethnic conglomeration and that produced some important differences between these countries and their southern neighbors of Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and the other Slavic Balkan countries such as Bulgaria. For starters, Croats and Slovenes, while Slavs, are Catholic, not Orthodox, and as a result of that influence they use the Latin alphabet, not the Cyrillic. More interestingly (at least as tourists), Slovenia and inland Croatia are blessed with the architecture of late-1800's Austria-Hungry, much like Prague and Budapest. Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, and, to a lesser extent, Zagreb were beyond charming.

Zagreb's city center is small and was quiet during our brief stopover, but this didn't prevent it from being winner of the Driving Nightmare Of The Sort That Severs Friendships Award for the trip. Narrow one-way streets with incomprehensible parking rules and seemingly unnecessary round-abouts turned what should have been a fifteen minute parking job into something akin to a trip down the Styx. We grumpily climbed out of the little Peugot and made our way to a hostel.

Despite being rather petite, Zagreb is a very elegant, understated city. The aforementioned architecture is complimented nicely by 50s-vintage street cars shuttling citizens around and some really beautiful greenspace. We spent an evening and the next morning wandering the cute streets and eating at a cafe with a picture window view out into the main square. We were definitely impressed and didn't yet know that this was but a minor preview of what awaited us in Slovenia.

A tram in the early morning fog of Zagreb

Outside a church in Zagreb

Slovenia is in the EU, which tells you something about its level of development and standard of living. It was always the best well-off of the republics in Yugoslavia due to its metal industry and border with Austria and Italy (unlike Warsaw Pact countries, Yugoslavia was not completely closed off to the west--remember the Yugo automobile?--because Tito had firmly resisted joining into any sort of alliance with the USSR). Situated at the base of the Julian Alps, Slovenia is a positively gorgeous country. Rolling green hillsides followed the highway into Ljubljana and many of the homes on those hillsides sported Alpine roofs.

For the five of us, Ljubljana was pretty much love at first sight. Located near the confluence of two rivers (Ljubljanica and Danube), the city has an old-world feel that left us constantly remarking "This was Yugoslavia?!" The three ladies (Jillian and friends Erin and Kathy) thoroughly enjoyed perusing the shops along the river, while Frank and I thoroughly enjoyed a beer or coffee while waiting for them. The eating and drinking options were bountiful and the nightlife was vibrant. Indeed, we felt a very, very long way from Macedonia.

Old Ljubljana

Ljubljana's famed Dragon Bridge

A castle overlooks the city and provides and excellent view of the region as well as a really nice hike up. Adding to that regal feel, we had a close encounter with Queen Elizabeth of England, who was in town the same weekend as us. Slovenes lined the street to see her walk past with other dignitaries and I was having a difficult time figuring out where she was when, suddenly, the crowd parted and she was no more than fifteen feet away from me, waving grandly. Well, that was unexpected.

Because we had (smartly) planned on three nights in Ljubljana, we had time for a day trip to Bled, a lake town at the very base of the Alps. Throughout our trip we had positively perfect weather--sunny and 60 inland, sunny and 70 along the coast--except in Bled, where clouds, rain and fog hugged the mountains. Taking the slippery trail towards the castle overlooking the town and lake, I got this feeling we were approaching the House of Usher.

So the view was ruined and the town was deserted, but the day was saved by a gem of a hike through a gorge just outside of Bled. The gray weather was actually a plus there, as it enhanced the mood as we walked along the wooden platform constructed through the gorge. Standing among the evergreens, watching salamanders dart out from under mossy roots, it was hard to believe that just the next day we'd be standing among palm trees in a seaside resort town built among the ruins of a Roman emperor's retirement palace. But in Split, Croatia, we found just that.

But that's next time...and don't forget, more pictures can be found in "Our Photos" in the right column.

Hiking outside Bled