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?


Anonymous said...

Always fun to read your blog because you see the Macedonia I can't see.

Anyway, we call those superstitions "babini devetini" which I guess in English would be "old wife's tales". Most people, of course, don't believe in them and they just consider them as sort of fun bits of folklore (a few of them seem to be generally accepted, though).

Of course, there are superstitious people that do believe in this sort of stuff, but then again, that is part of the nature of man. Horoscope, ghosts, folk tales, customs and beliefs. It's easy to miss them in your culture because you are raised with them, but they tend to stick out if you live abroad.


Alexandra said...

I think the comparison to Groundhog Day is genius - I laughed my ass off.

Dan, someday you're going to write a book and I'll be first in line to buy it.

Love, Alex

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