January 23, 2009

Jump Right In

Karl Marx called religion "the opiate of the masses," insisting that once it had been abolished people could get down to the business of really being happy in a society free of such oppressing forces as the church. Well, Communism sure tried its damnedest to stamp out this "opium," but in the process it created something akin to the "Tylenol PM of the masses." Drugged by ideology and anesthetized by decades of poverty, the people of Eastern Europe spent much of the twentieth century in a haze. In his absolutely riveting examination of the region, Balkan Ghosts, Robert Kaplan explains how in Romania, for example, the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceau┼čescu actually used grinding poverty as a weapon to subjugate the population.

Yugoslavia was always a bit different from those Soviet-dominated nations; nevertheless, it was synonymous in all the fundamental ways, including the suppression of religion (again, though, not so violently suppressed as in places like Russia or Romania). In Macedonia, and more specifically our town, religion never disappeared. Rather it just became a bit dormant. Behaviors were modified and overt displays of religion were tampered down. The arrival of Santa Claus was moved from Christmas to New Year's Eve. Family traditions were kept just there, in the family. And so on.

I was talking with my counterpart at the high school, an English teacher around my age, about holiday traditions, specifically one on Christmas Eve when a coin is placed inside a loaf of bread. The bread is then broken into pieces and passed around. Whomever finds the coin in their piece can expect a year of good luck and good health (Jillian found it last Christmas in Caska). My counterpart, Kristina, told me she's never found the coin. Wow, in 32 years, never once? Well, she explained, her family has only been practicing that tradition for a decade or so, since her grandfather was president of the local Communist Party when she was growing up. While it may have been alright for other families to privately carry on with such things, it just wasn't prudent in her house.

Religion came back into the public space with much gusto following the fall of Communism. Despite this I would never describe Macedonians as extremely religious, at least not in how they demonstrate their faith. Compared to many religious sects and believers in America, Macedonians are quite restrained in their pronouncements. Indeed, any boldness surrounding a religious event usually stems from its social nature. Monday was a perfect example.

Last year we were totally caught off guard by this gathering. This time we were ready. The day was Vodici, a commemoration of the baptism of Christ, and it all happened down by the river. By 9am it seemed most of the town was out, standing on the two bridges, crowding the riverbank and watching from the terraces of nearby homes. We were in that third group, guests of the teacher at Roma center. [If you've been reading this blog for very long, than you will not be terribly surprised by the next sentence.] Our friend's father patrolled the balcony, passing out small cups of warm rakia, or plum brandy, a staple of the region. I took my cup and squeezed into the mass of bodies in search of a better view of the river bank below. The air smelled of rakia breath, unwashed clothes and chimney smoke.

Excitement builds along the river


Just before ten the action began and it was over pretty quickly. A procession was making its way from the church to the bridge and we could follow its movements from our vantage point. Once on the bridge, the crowd parted and allowed the Orthodox priests passage to the railing. A loudspeaker had been set up, but it was impossible for us to hear what was being said. The priest held in one hand a small wooden cross and in the other what looked like a censer. As he began to swing it gently back and forth over the rushing water below, what came out was not smoke but holy water. Just then there was a burst of noise and energy on the riverbank as a few brave souls pulled off their shirts and dove into river. Their leap was timed to match that of the priest dropping the small cross. There was a scramble. The crowd laughed and cheered. A victor emerged and with him a year of good luck.

The crowd below us dispersed, but the group on the balcony was only getting started. More brandy was placed on the table next to something that looked like meat suspended inside a sort of jelly. Yikes. "Oh, I tried it inside," I told an old man who shoved a toothpick full of the stuff in my direction. "Oh, I tried it outside," I told our friend back in the house. I did have more brandy, though. "It's part of the tradition," I told Jillian. She just rolled her eyes. "And it's six o'clock somewhere."

January 14, 2009

Of Groundhogs and Birthmarks

We gave Bube and Tina a little gift today--Peace Corps Macedonia calendars, 100% volunteer-created with pictures from all over the country. After flipping through the pages and commenting on a few of the photos--my personal favorite is one Jillian and I call "grumpy babas" in which two women are sitting on some steps looking like a pair of quarreling old sisters--Bube asked the obvious question: "What's Groundhog Day?" Okay, her first question was actually about Ash Wednesday and me in all my Catholic upbringing couldn't remember. "You wind up with an ash cross on your forehead" was all I could muster.


Then we told her about Groundhog Day, which is one of those things that sounds way more ridiculous out loud than it does in your head. I Googled a picture of a groundhog so that Bube could really conjure up the complete image of Punxsutawney Phil emerging from his home to (not) see his shadow. "I mean, it's not like people get a day off from work or kids get to stay home from school," we were quick to add.

This came just a few days after Bube was telling me about some more traditions and beliefs carried forward by the older generation in Macedonia today--I've mentioned fortune telling in the coffee grounds. That so many customs live on is due in large part to the fact that extended families live together--most people are shocked to hear that in America children can grow up to reside thousands of miles away from their parents. "Yeah, some really prefer it that way," we sometimes say. Here it is the rule rather than the exception that three generations live under the same roof and so grandparents, who really grew up in a different time, have an opportunity to pass on their wisdom to the kiddies.

I'm of two minds about the beliefs passed down by the old folk of Macedonia. On the one hand it can be quite alarming, particularly with regard to health. The Macedonian education system does not provide health classes, so the only sources of information for children about what we would consider basic health facts are family and friends. This leads to beliefs such as "drinking cold water makes you sick" and "if a woman wears a shirt exposing her midriff she'll become infertile." I get a good chuckle out of hearing these, but then I realize that kids here are not being taught about bacteria and viruses and how germs are spread. You know, those things that actually make you sick.

On the other hand, some beliefs are a real joy to hear. The other day Bube was telling me about one and it goes like this: a pregnant woman should never steal. More than that, a pregnant woman should never take anything that isn't hers, even innocently. If she does, the next place she touches herself with that hand will be marked on her baby in the shape of the object she took. For instance, if a pregnant woman were to pick a rose from a neighbor's garden without asking and then touch herself on the neck, her child will have a rose-shaped birthmark on his or her neck. "So my grandmother always says," Bube told me, "if you think you've taken something, touch yourself on the butt."

[I saw a man in Skopje once whose entire head was covered by a birthmark. Now I wonder, what did his mom steal? A globe? A basketball? A human head?]

When Bube told me about her grandmother's advice I laughed, a little unsure how to react exactly. I studied Bube's face for signs as to whether she believes this old wives' tale or not. If she does, would that change my opinion of her at all? But then if she doesn't, will that prove to me that she's "western" or something? But then a funny thing happened: I swear I saw the exact same searching expression on her face as we told her about the groundhog. What would she think of us if she thought we breathlessly awaited Panxsutawney Phil's forecast every year? And really, what's so strange about touching your butt after taking a flower once you've heard about a rodent seeing his shadow and predicting the weather?

January 10, 2009

The Lion in Winter

Is there a worse feeling to have than that pit-of-your-stomach, gnawing anxiety that comes about when you suddenly realize that you know more than the "expert" you've come to see? Like when it dawns on you that the auto mechanic working on your Honda is pretty much clueless--you went there to get the steering checked out, but this guy seems a little preoccupied with your brake lights. Or a real estate agent who can't seem to remember the difference between a ranch and a condo. Thanks to the internet, we can increase our knowledge on any subject tenfold in a matter of hours--a little Google and some common sense gets you a long way these days--but let's be honest, we still need all those professionals in their fields. Which is why it's so disturbing to meet someone who seems pretty, well, far afield.


What I just described can certainly happen in America, so believe me when I say it can really happen in Macedonia. This country is tricky and I sometimes think this might be a harder post than some of the less-developed countries Peace Corps works in. Sure, in many respects things look and feel pretty Western around here, but as soon as you start believing that you're in trouble. The minute your expectations start rising you've set a course for disappointment. Or as a former PCV who served in our town wrote to us recently, "just beneath the surface over there it's Mad Max world."

I bring all this up because we recently took our kitten, Arye, to the local vet to get spayed. [Cue: Suspenseful music, followed by a spinning fun-house mirror image of a manically cackling, blood-spattered doctor.] No, really, he's actually a very nice man, but somewhere along the way Jillian and I turned to each other and said (out loud and in front of him--he doesn't speak any English), "This man doesn't know anything about cats!"

The vet station here is a rather cavernous structure, built in the mold of a 1950's insane asylum. This sounds weird until you realize that the vets here mostly service livestock--pets are extremely rare in Macedonia. In fact, when we first met the vet and told him about Arye he was genuinely puzzled. He sat in his black leather chair behind a disorderly stack of papers. The clock on his desk said it was 9:30; the one on the wall over his head read 7:15. It was around noon. He asked us: Why would anyone want a cat? And you let it inside?!? "There's more," we replied. "It sleeps with us. On our bed." He recoiled in horror.

After a few minor mishaps, such as us showing up at the vet station with the kitten at our appointed time only to find the place deserted, the surgery finally happened. Well, at the risk of sounding a bit crude or alarming, when the vet handed Arye back to us all I could think of was the scene from Dirty Dancing when the doctor is woken by his daughter in the middle of the night to help out Penny, the dancer who just had an illegal abortion performed by some sketchy character. Except we couldn't call Jerry Orbach for a second opinion.

Alright, before you click away from this page in disgust, I'll tell you that Arye really is fine. But this vet apparently doesn't understand the concept of "recovery time." No sooner had the last stitch been set than we were being pushed out the door with our pained, drugged kitten. Even worse, as we were leaving, the vet exclaimed (with genuine surprise in his voice) something to the effect of, "Wow! She has really small organs!"

So I spent the night not sleeping. Instead of resting peacefully in the wee hours I alternated between checking the pulse of our kitten and assuring Jillian that the six dozen ways she was envisioning Arye dying were all way off the mark. Things only got brighter the next day when our blood-shot eyes noticed blood in Arye's pee. Now Jillian was utterly convinced that the kitten had but hours to live. I went and asked the vet. "Normal," he said. Exact word. Hmmm...in my mind's eye I saw a teeter-totter. On one side sat this vet, smiling assuringly and asking (like he always does) all about California, or Florida, or cowboys and Indians--really, anything but our cat. On the other side were the twenty or so professional veterinary websites we'd consulted about spaying. Not much balance there, to say the least.

Ultimately, we consulted (via Jillian's mom) a vet back in San Diego and learned the probable cause of the kitten's pink pee. Not exactly "normal," but no big deal either and it cleared up in a matter of days. Arye has made a good recovery. She's back to her old self, allowing only for the e-collar she's still wearing to prevent her from licking her stitches. Jillian fashioned this out of a cardboard box and an old sock and Arye is now pretty easy to locate. Just follow the sound of cardboard scraping against whatever she's poking around in. This collar is a bit of a hassle at night when Arye tries to snuggle up on my neck--it's a sort if like cuddling with a box of Corn Flakes.

In a few days the stitches come out and we can bid a fond farewell to the vet, leaving him to his goats, cows and pigs who, I've heard, have enormous organs. But don't take my word for it. I'm no expert.

Royal cat.