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.

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