December 31, 2008

'Twas the Night Before 2009

Today should have been a great day. It's New Year's Eve and our little town is feeling quite festive. The streets are decorated with lights. I could hear a band playing all afternoon, the Macedonian turbo-folk sounds drifting up from the city center. Our local market was just swarmed with revelers stocking up and everywhere we go we run into someone asking about plans for tonight. In short, this is a big holiday.

This morning Jillian and I went over to the kindergarten for a little celebration with the kids. With Safet we laid out a nice spread for them to munch on as the anticipation of Santa Claus' arrival built. Those kids weren't the only anxious ones--as I mentioned last time, Safet told me I should play the part of Santa; I demurred, but he insisted. It became clear yesterday that he had no backup plan and so this morning there I was, climbing into the lamest Santa suit I'd ever seen. When I had finished assembling this thing, I more closely resembled a member of a hazmat team, as if the elves were making the toys with lead paint and there was a spill in the workshop.

Who loves you more than Santa?

There was a package for each child and I gathered a few of them under my arms and stood outside the door to the classroom, listening to Safet tell the kids that he heard Santa arriving in his helicopter. Then I made my grand entrance, let rip a few obligitory ho, ho, hoes, and sat down on the teacher's swivel chair to hand out gifts. Much to my relief, the younger children (2 and 3 years old) really believed they were seeing Santa and crowded around, joyously yelling out for me and my packages. The four-year olds? Not fooled for even a second. One little boy in particular seemed to examine me with pity, as if to say, "Wow, Safet made you wear that?"

One by one the children came forth for their packages, sitting on my lap next to the Christmas tree for a picture. I tried to talk in a deeper, more grandfatherly voice, using a few basic Macedonian phrases. But inevitably I had to break character to say something like, "Mane, wait your turn!" or "Fernando, don't touch the tree!" In other words, this was a professional job from top to bottom.

Then Santa departed to the waves and cheers of the little ones. It was just in time, really, I was sweating quite profusely in my winter coat and vest under the costume and the fake beard was agitating my real one (which could be clearly seen, by the way). The kids gobbled up the rest of their food, a group picture was more or less taken and the parents shuttled the children away and left us to clean up the plates and forks and cups. And then things went south.

The kids gather 'round

Fica takes her turn on Santa's lap

The kids wave Santa a fond farewell

So this Roma youth center is operated by Safet and we have come to see over the last few months that while he recognizes many of the ills that dog his community and that while his heart is in the right place, Safet is amazingly stubborn and self-righteous. These qualities manifest in all sorts of situations, but the one that is particularly frustrating and (on this day) hurtful is his complete unwillingness to work with ethnic Macedonians. He is utterly convinced that all Macedonians are bad people who only wish the worst for the Roma community. I regret to report that this sentiment towards the Roma is quite common here, but Safet is way off the mark with his generalization.

Exhibit A: Tina. We have been helping Tina with her college applications and we have come be good friends with her. Not surprisingly, as she tends to have a much wider world view than most people in this town, Tina volunteered to join us at the center. This is a perfect idea--she's great with kids, she can work with them to improve their Macedonian language skills (which is so essential if they are to succeed) and she can translate for us in our conversations with Safet. She's been coming for about a week and the kids just love her. Safet has been regarding her with suspicious acceptance...until today.

As we all sat together eating the remains of kids' snacks and talking about the future, Safet launched into one of his tirades about discrimination and how he is the only person willing to challenge it, etc. This speech, which we've heard three dozen times, really grates us because while Safet professes to want different ethnic groups to come together to defeat the discrimination, he also takes this ridiculous pride in going it alone and not welcoming anyone into his project (we're exempt, somehow, because we're Americans).

Inevitably and unfortunately, the conversation turned to Tina, who did an admirable job of arguing to Safet that there are young Macedonians like herself who recognize the issues and prejudices facing the Roma and who are willing to help. I mean, for god's sake, we didn't drag Tina to the center at gunpoint! Not good enough for Safet, who took this opportunity to look past present evidence, condemn all Macedonians, accuse Tina of having ulterior motives and informing her in no uncertain terms that she's not welcome there anymore.

So Tina was in tears and Jillian and I were way beyond angry. His callousness was unlike anything I've ever seen and it really called into question just what kind of person Safet is and what kind of project he's running here. Inclusion? Looks increasingly to me like Safet is actively working to reinforce the exclusion and marginalization of the Roma, even if unintentionally.

Well, that put a real damper on the day. Poor Tina, a 17-year old wunderkind of social awareness, just had to learn the hard (and personal) way that altruism isn't always recognized as such. If Safet is truly going to succeed and expand, as he plans to, he will need young Macedonians like Tina and her friends to join in and lend a hand. And our relationship with Safet certainly has just been altered. This center, and our work there, is supposed to be about the children, who we really adore, but this rather serious roadblock has emerged. Worst of all, Safet seemed utterly oblivious to the gravity of his actions and how mad he made us. A change is going to come, that much is certain...we'll keep you posted.

Happy New Year! (and lots more pictures from the Roma center, including some sweet Santa pics, are available by clicking on Our Photos on the right sidebar)

December 25, 2008


Cliche Advisory: The following blog post contains phrases such as "the greatest gift of all," "the season of giving," "it's the most wonderful time of the year" and "tis the season."

This time last year, Jillian and I were quite amused at our situation: a normal day of work. We had arrived to our town only ten days previous and were still in the early stages of finding our way around and getting to know our schools. I distinctly remember I was sitting in the teacher's room between classes when the cell phone rang--it was Jillian's sister Alex in New York, calling to wish us a merry Christmas. Wow, it certainly didn't feel like the holidays. No decorations in the windows of houses, no Mariah Carey Christmas collection on repeat in the stores, no Salvation Army bells. But I guess that made it easier for us; since it didn't really feel like the most wonderful time of the year, we didn't miss it so much.

Today, one year later, I was back at the high school. Today, one year later, Alex played a significant part in my Christmas. That's where the similarities really end--while last year was newness and confusions, this year proved to be one of the most satisfying holidays I can remember. Jillian and I spent this morning at the Roma kindergarten and, thanks in large part to Alex and Jillian's mom, these less fortunate kids had a really great Christmas. [I should add here that Christmas in Macedonia is celebrated according to the Orthodox calendar on January 7, but the kindergarten's director, Safet, insisted that we have a "western" holiday.]

The morning began with the little ones watching a video of Santa's visit last year. They loved it. By the way, in Macedonia Santa goes by the name Dedo Mraz, or literally, Grandfather Ice, and he comes on New Year's Eve, not Christmas (this came about as a way to get around communism's unofficial ban on Christmas). Anyway, the toddlers are getting very excited about Santa's impending trip to their town--this building euphoria is particularly sweet and sad amongst these children, some of whom don't own a single toy (wow, it's hard for me to even type that). Safet made some passing remarks today about his wanting me to serve in the role of Santa this year, but I tend to believe that any Santa worth his salt should have a BMI above 20. Good lord, I need to find someone else, lest these kids think Santa has one hell of tape worm.

Santa may be a few days off, but today proved that Christmas can truly be the season of giving. Jillian's sister and mom mailed 24 brand new winter coats, along with some hats and mittens and they arrived just in time. Along with some donated clothes and stuffed animals that Safet had at the center, we were able to give each child a really nice package today. The coats fit perfectly and the little ones looked absolutely adorable in their new, warm digs. Honestly, the kids really loved the stuffed animal and chocolate bar that came in their package, but their parents sure appreciated the coats and clothing.

Later at the high school, the teachers all wished me a merry Christmas and asked if Jillian and I would be celebrating tonight. Turns out we just ate a pizza and drank some Serbian beer, Jelen (pronounced "yellin'"). But who needs a traditional Christmas when you can sit back and bask in the afterglow of making some sweet little kids happy. 'Tis the season.

**Read more about the Roma of Eastern Europe in this article from The Economist

With Aileen and Daryan

Jillian with Feadora and her new stuff

Nafia just loved her new coat...she gave Jillian a big kiss

December 18, 2008


Increasingly feeling like this is where our energy is best put into action, Jillian and I have been spending more time at the Roma kindergarten these last few weeks. I wrote about this in some detail back in October--the Roma community in our town lives in squalor and is severely undereducated. Like many Roma communities throughout Europe, they face discrimination and suspicion. The kindergarten, operated by a one-man NGO, Safet, is an essential resource for these small children; if anything, it should be greatly expanded.

Recently Jillian has begun work on a grant to help with just that. [If nothing else, Jillian will leave the Peace Corps with some serious grant writing chops. She's already written two major grants and this one will be her third. She's got a real knack for organizational writing.] Our idea in writing the grant, in consultation with Safet, is to not only increase the number of children served at the kindergarten, but also to hold staff training for Safet and his assistant, organize parent information sessions, create a Saturday morning homework support program for those few Roma children enrolled in the public schools, develop a food bank at the center and purchase much-needed school supplies for the children as they enter the integrated public schools in first grade. It's a major project, one that we feel would be best served by having a PCV placed with Safet's organization next year.

Aside from logistics, it has been a real joy going to the kindergarten and working with the children. Recently the addition of a new little girl at the center has forced us to reconsider someone. The little girl's name is Nafia and her mother begs, usually outside our neighborhood market. From my vantage point the only thing this seems to accomplish is making the Roma community look bad (I realize she and her family live in abhorrent conditions and that state social services provide only token financial support...but still, she's the only Roma who begs and her brusque manner is completely off-putting). Kids in tow, this woman stalks customers as they exit the store. In our first few months in town we had some choice encounters with this woman, including the occasion in which she spit on me. What I've always found depressing about the woman, really, has been the manner in which she includes her children in this endeavor.

Then she brought her children to the center. Only Nafia is age-appropriate, but Safet allowed a younger and older child to attend for a couple of days as well. Simply put, these are the sweetest, nicest, most well-behaved children we've met at the center. Many of the little ones at the kindergarten are, well, brats, thanks to little in the way of supervision or parental education. A few of them simply scream at the top of their lungs when they're not getting their way, while others react with punches and kicks at anyone, everyone.

Nafia and her siblings, on the other hand, are miren, as Safet repeatedly tells us. Peaceful. Their interactions with each other are supportive and loving. Nafia never has to be told twice to put away a toy, wash her hands or move to the tiny tables for drawing time. And when the other kids in her group are howling like banshees and running around like chickens without heads, she sits quietly.

And so I look at her mother a little differently now. Maybe it's not fair, but I asked myself, incredulously, "These are her kids?" Now when we pass her outside the market she doesn't ask for money, but instead she asks when we'll be going back to the kindergarten. And sometimes Nafia is with her and she always runs over to us, smiles and says hello.

December 11, 2008

The Woodsman

Let me paint a terrifying scene for my American readers: you are in the living room with your family--spouse, kids--and some extended family, such your mother and father, or perhaps your in-laws. It's winter and the stove is burning hot. The kids are jockeying for a place directly in front of the fire and your mother-in-law just turned up the TV again. The living room opens up into the kitchen and you make your way in there to start dinner. There's a dining table in between with six places set. Except for when you sleep, the family will spend all its time in this room. Only. All winter.

That scene is best pictured in black-and-white, which is always how infomercials depict life before their product. The product missing here is privacy, something we Americans cherish, even within the confines of our family. Or should I say especially within those confines. "Wouldn't you like to get away?" asked the theme song to Cheers. Americans relish the ability to get the hell away from everyone else from time to time, even if it's just to another room for some quiet reading. We like our space.

Well, electricity is laughably expensive in Macedonia when compared to average earnings (I think this is due to the fact that Macedonian produces very little of its own and imports most from neighboring countries) and homes are not heated with oil or natural gas. So the stove takes on enormous importance. In every house it sits like a mute family member in a place of strategic importance, such as near the TV. Sure, it lies dormant for seven or eight months of the year, but once it comes on it gets swarmed like a guy who just won the lottery. And there's typically only one in the house, though there may be a separate cooking stove as well. As the bedrooms go frozen (and I mean this nearly literally...we slept in a bedroom at our host family's last winter in which the temperature was 39), only the main room is heated. And so it's the center of family life for the winter season.

All of this means that wood takes on great importance this time of year. Throughout the fall two distinct sounds could be heard: the chopping of wood and the sawing of wood. The first is pretty standard, but the second bears description. I clearly remember the "wood guy" coming to our house in Maine during my childhood, dropping off a couple cords of cut wood and departing on his way. Sure, we had to stack all this wood and bring it in the house, but the hard work had been done. When someone orders wood here in Macedonia, what arrives is not so much "wood" as several felled trees, as if Gulliver did some weeding in Lilliput and sprinkled his find around the doorsteps all over town. Which brings me to Wood Cutting Guy.

Wood Cutting Guy is our neighbor. I'm not sure what his name is even though he's told me. He speaks in a dialect that can be (for us) very difficult to understand. WCG owns a table saw on wheels and I'd guess fall is a pretty lucrative time of year for him. We saw him everywhere in October with his ear-shattering saw, which I must note, includes absolutely zero safety measures. There's nothing between WCG and a blade spinning at 3500 rpm except the wood he's holding.

When he's not busy preserving his own life, WCG has been saving ours. See, we really needed wood and things were getting desperate. Not for the house, mind you, but for our adult English course. We hold this class, which so far has been a real success, in a rather large, unused room at the fire station. There's a stove in this room and we were assured by the town mayor that wood was not going to be a problem when the temperature turned cold. Well, old buddy, our students can see their breath during class, so where's the wood? Let me guess, you've got a bridge in Brooklyn you'd like to sell me as well.

Jillian and I realized we had to take matters into our hands and so we went on a pilgrimage to see Wood Cutting Guy at his wood-cutting shack. Not only was he willing to help us, but before we could ask when he was available, WCG was putting on some boots and a second coat. We were holding bags of groceries...did he mind if we put these down first? Of course not. Then the field trip began.

Considering I had had exactly one previous conversation with the guy prior to this encounter, we were blown away by the effort he put in for us. We walked around town for over an hour, at each stop waiting patiently outside while he talked with his wood "contacts." Though the first few stops would prove to be strike outs, we persevered until we were on an old stone path above the town. It felt very village-like and a light snow had begun to fall. There we came upon an older man and his wife. She was wearing traditional Macedonian clothing and stirred an enormous vat of pig fat in oil over an open flame. The pig had been killed earlier that day. Once it was decided that this was the place for wood, we celebrated with some fried fat cubes and rakia.

So this man had some wood and was willing to sell. But how to get it down the hill and into town? Turned out that WCG is also TWG, or Transportation of Wood Guy, and before long we were talking to some other neighbors and had soon procured a car and a hitch wagon. Jillian headed home and I climbed into the passenger seat alongside another of my neighbors. WCG was in the backseat and as the car began the steep climb up the hill a can of Skopsko beer serendipitously rolled out from under my seat. After a brief conference, WCG opened the beer and gulped.

"You want a beer?" the driver asked me. I looked back at the floor, wondering how many he stored under his seats.
"No, here." He pointed to the glove compartment. Really? I opened it and found nothing. When I informed him that the minibar was empty my driver looked rather embarrassed, like he was being a bad host. Thankfully we reached the house before things got too awkward.

And from there it happened pretty quick. We loaded up the wagon, brought it down the hill and on Tuesday our students had a fire at their backs as they talked about their families. "Bravo," they said. All the praise goes to Wood Cutting Guy, actually. After we had finished our mission and were back in the neighborhood, I gave him a big round of thanks before heading home. He just said, "It's nothing. If a neighbor needs help, I help." Fried pork fat and rakia at noon? That's very Macedonian. But what WCG did, that's also very Macedonian.

December 02, 2008

Thanksgiving "Vacation"

Macedonia doesn't have any Wal-Marts and nobody here has ever heard of Black Friday, so the Skopje holiday season is off to a retailer-trampled-to-death-free start. While the streets of this country may have bit more trash blowing around them then one would like, none of those articles of debris are Best Buy or Kohl's fliers, screaming out the discounts THIS WEEKEND ONLY! And there's no Starbucks here either. While I miss the coffee, I don't miss their ridiculous holiday slogan, printed cheerfully on those red cups: "It only happens once a year." What only happens once? Only one gun is pulled out at a Toys 'R Us? It's hard to understand how a season that lasts 45 days can be described as happening "once."

Macedonia is, shall we say, a bit more sedate this time of year. Not exactly a consumer society yet (at least, outside of Skopje it's not), this country hasn't embraced the big Christmas/New Year's tsunami. Which is really for the best, since the vast majority of Macedonians don't have that sort of money and, happily, personal debt like credit cards is virtually unknown here. Still, it's a bummer missing out on all the holiday decorations, festivities and cheer. And egg nog.

So while Christmas just ain't the same, Thanksgiving is a pretty close facsimile, courtesy of an all-volunteer Peace Corps turkey dinner. You may remember this get-together from last year, when Jillian was more or less forced into reading a long Macedonian text in front of the entire audience (many of whom are Macedonians) during our skit. Well, this year we only had to bring along some food for the potluck portion of the meal (the turkeys were flown in from Washington, D.C.). I made a baked apple concoction that no one touched. I couldn't blame them. Most of the food was ultra-delicious, though highly tilted towards desserts, and the whole evening was a real blast.

Thanksgiving food, so much it had to be stacked

Of course we're smiling. It's the Eating Holiday.

Following the meal and skits performed by the new group of trainees, we headed back home along with eight other volunteers. Jillian had organized a working weekend with fellow counselors from Camp GLOW...yeah, the camp's not till next July, but Jillian is what you might call Super Duper Organized. If doctors were to hook her up to one of those brain scan machines, I guarantee the print out would closely resemble a flow chart. The weekend was a great success, she reports, with much progress made by day and much fun had at night. And we got in a trip to the local monastery on Saturday afternoon.

Meanwhile, there hasn't been school in over a week, thanks to a nearly nation-wide teachers' strike. The cause of the strike is pay--not salary, but a sort of transportation and food stipend that all Macedonian civil servants receive in addition to salary--but the truly interesting part of all this has been the execution of the whole thing. Let's just say it's not exactly a model of Solidarity. Some schools only striked for a day or so, some never held the strike. In our town, some teachers quickly became fed up with the protest and started calling their students into school. On top of this, the lines of communication are such that local teachers are forced to watch the evening news to learn whether or not the strike will continue the next day.

For our part, the strike has come at a pretty good time: Bube and Tina are submitting their applications to colleges this week, so having the extra free time has been nice for last-minute tuning of their essays and paperwork. And, of course, all the local students are just loving this unexpected holiday. It looks like Saturday on the town's main street, with kids walking around and sitting in the cafe bars all day. Like them, I know the reckoning will come later, most likely in the form of a truncated winter break or several consecutive Saturdays of classes...still, I can't help but give thanks.