February 22, 2009

Survey Says...

When travelers turn off the main "highway" into our town, they are greeted with the usual assortment of signs: center-of-town this way, hotel in 3 kilometers, gas station in 1 kilometer. And then there's this one, denoting the city limit and supplemented by someone with some extra information about the town:

"A city without Albanians" the spray paint gleefully exclaims. Just for good measure, the author used the derogatory term for Albanians and threw a few crosses on there as well to underline the religious differences between the ethnic groups. 

The statement is true: there are no Albanians living in town. A friend tells us that several years ago there was an Albanian man living here, but that he was effectively run out. This friend also tells us that it's not uncommon to hear people express the belief that were another Albanian to move here, the same fate would befall him. 

Now, I don't want to leave you with the impression that there are citizen patrols marching the streets with pitchforks and burning crosses, chanting things like what's written on that sign. It would be very easy to get carried away and make the situation sound worse than it is. It's mostly an us-versus-them mentality born of the region's history of ethnic conflict and a general fear of the unknown. People here speak of the western cities of Tetovo and Gostivar--where the majority of the country's ethnic Albanians live--with great trepidation and are shocked to hear there are PCVs there. In fact, while teaching our adult English class about cardinal directions, we asked, "Is Gostivar north or south of Tetovo?" Not a single person among the nine knew the answer. This would be like growing up in New York City and not knowing if Washington D.C. is north or south of Philadelphia.  The geography of that part of the country, like the people living there, is a mystery.

It was against this backdrop last week that Bube and Tina conducted a survey in the high school. In a little over a month there's a youth leadership conference to be held in Kosovo for students from all over the Balkans and the girls are submitting a research paper in hopes of being invited to present. In short, really cool stuff. They chose to focus on ethnic attitudes among high school students. It's a particularly interesting question here, where most young people have no contact with Albanians and yet--thanks to family, friends and the media--have developed rather strong opinions on the matter. 

Bube and Tina wrote a very strong, thought-provoking survey and distributed it to over 150 students during their English classes. I was impressed (and relieved) to see most students answer the survey's questions quietly and maturely. Many of the queries must have been things that the students had never really considered and, in fact, the results seem to say just that.

I won't bore you with a whole litany of statistics, though if you are interested in seeing the full results, leave your email address in the comments section and I'm sure Bube and Tina would be happy to share them with you. I'll just touch on a few that I thought were particularly telling. 

When asked if they believe that Albanians have the same rights as Macedonians, 58% answered Yes or Definitely Yes. But in the very next question, when asked if Albanians deserve to have the same rights, 53% answered No or Definitely No. 

Now consider the response to the question, "Do you think that inter-ethnic relations need to be improved?" A whopping 79% answered Yes or Definitely Yes. So there is recognition of the problem--but how to reconcile this with the fact that the majority of students don't believe in equal rights for Albanians? How could the situation be "improved" working from such a baseline?

There is some hope offered later in the survey, however. 90% of students responded that they have never taken part in a program or project to improve relations between the ethnic groups and 67% responded Yes, Definitely Yes or Maybe when asked if they would consider it. That's very promising. To wit, in the disaggregate data (I'm telling you, Bube and Tina did a great job) the group with the highest participation in programs to improve inter-ethnic relations, Females Who Know an Albanian, consistently gave the most open-minded responses to questions. 

If nothing else, this survey provided a small piece of what is so desperately needed: a pathway through which an honest dialogue about ethnic relations can begin. If even one student was pushed to consider this subject in ways that he or she never had before or if the questions provoked even the smallest of discussions, then there was some real value beyond the research. 

But ultimately it is the research that must be lauded. Showing impressive initiative and proving (again) why any college in America would be lucky to have them, Tina and Bube did a fantastic job and with any luck will be able to present these important findings, along with their solutions, to a professional panel and their peers. They are two reasons to be optimistic about Macedonia's future.

February 08, 2009

Don't Blink

Situated in the center of Skopje, on a small street between two of the city's largest boulevards and adjacent to the Russian Embassy, is the Hotel Ambassador. It rises seven stories and from its balconies guests have a nice view of Saint Kliment Ohrid Church and lots and lots of concrete. The Ambassador's exterior is adorned with statues--all sorts of classical statues which, according to the hotel's website, "symbolize the MACEDONIAN PEOPLE'S past, present and future" (emphasis theirs, not mine). But that doesn't explain the presence of what is a very clear likeness of the Statue of Liberty on the roof. Is Macedonia applying for admission to the European Union, or is becoming the 51st state in the cards? Give me your tired, your poor, your geographically confused.

I mention the Hotel Ambassador because it was the site of last week's mid-service conference for all PCVs in our group. Actually, we have about ten months to go, so I guess that whole "mid-service" thing is the weight before cooking. Jillian and I had a room on the fourth floor and every time we climbed the stairs to our room we passed a white plaster statue of some long-forgotten Communist, posing in that classic I'm-rotund-while-my-fellow-citizens-struggle-to-feed-their-families kind of stance. His suit just screams "politburo." 

I don't mean to sound harsh on the Ambassador; aside from some comical decor, it was a very pleasant place to stay--clean and roomy with fairly good meals. And its central location made it an ideal place for our conference which, let's be honest, was a really great social event bracketed by some official sessions and meetings. The point of the conference was to take stock of where we stand, to count our successes, assess our shortcomings and prepare for the homestretch. 

With everything we're involved with--planning summer camps, the Roma center, adult English classes, the Great College Quest with Tina and Bube--it's a bit difficult to think about the end. Jillian and I are planning our departure in mid-November and yet that doesn't feel like enough time to finish everything. This is especially true at the Roma center, where we're only now shifting things into the next gear and preparing the grant application (much more on the situation there soon). Everything else should be wrapped up by the end of August, which means an ultra-busy spring and summer, followed by a few months of tying up loose ends and preparing for departure.

During our conference we were lead in an activity meant to highlight our accomplishments, insights, plans and the many people we've met during our stay in Macedonia. Owing to this activity's artistic bent (lots of drawing and plotting) I've almost entirely blocked it from my memory, repressed it, banished it to the trauma ward of my brain. But Jillian, whose product looked like something that might be hung in the Smithsonian, ensures me that the activity was a really brilliant way to not only recognize our own efforts, but also those of our peers, many of whom we really don't keep tabs on. Our group--down to 32 volunteers from an initial 43--is a really solid collection doing some really great things around Macedonia in the schools, NGOs and municipalities.

But the closing credits are still some time off. We may be past the mid-service point, but it just feels now like we're hitting our stride, something we were warned about over a year ago. "No sooner will you find yourself busy," volunteers told us, "than it'll be time to go home." Well then, as some else said: Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go. 

February 01, 2009

5 Years, 50 People

5:45pm -- Thinking it might be a particularly long evening, I pour myself a cup of coffee, thereby breaking our self-imposed rule about that stimulant late in the day. I'm usually okay, but give Jillian even a whiff of caffeine after 3 o'clock and she'll be tossing and turning all night. It's especially dangerous given what I'm drinking, Nescafe instant coffee. I read a story once about a former Peace Corps Volunteer who was serving in some central Asian country and became a little too "integrated" into his community. He developed a habit of visiting a local opium den. Then things got out of control and he was sent home. There's nothing so nefarious for PCVs in Macedonia, just these little Nescafe packets, which we all tend to carry around in purses and hidden backpack pockets like a drug. Really, some people just hoard the stuff.

6:35pm -- We set out in what has turned from light rain into a light snow fall. It's our 5-year wedding anniversary, but rather than find a cozy little spot to celebrate in a private, romantic way, we're headed to a party. A house anniversary, to be exact. So while it may be five years for us, across town there's a three-story home celebrating a few decades. Along with this snow is a bitter breeze, so we catch a cab. Unsure exactly how to express where we're going in Macedonian, I tell the cabbie, "Umm, drive. We'll tell you where to turn."

7:10pm -- Apparently there's an order to all of this. During a house anniversary, or slava, the neighbors come first, followed by family members and then, lastly, friends of the family. We just showed up with the family members. Ooops. No one seems concerned; after all, we're just the Americans and much like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer from Saturday Night Live, we just don't understand how things work.

7:30pm -- We're sitting at what is clearly the "kids' table", i.e. the table for non-family members. The table is full of wonderfully-presented meats (we ate wild boar), cheeses (and some homemade goat cheese), breads and sweets. At this moment we're speaking to the patriarch of the home, a congenial 75-year old man named Boroslav. His grandson, a student of mine at the high school and member of the debate team, shares the same name. Boroslav the Elder grew up in this town, survived a string of bombings in his village during WWII and went on to be the head cook at one of the town's Yugoslav-era factories. I ask him what his specialty was. "Grilled meat," he replies. 

7:50pm -- Two framed photos come out from the back room, each one with its own snow flake-unique pattern of cobwebs around the edges. One photo shows Boroslav, younger and working in the factory kitchen. An obligatory portrait of Tito hangs in the background. The other frame contains an icon, that of Saint Anthony, which brings us to this house anniversary.

Orthodox Christians, much like Catholics, just love their saints. In the Orthodox tradition, there are 365 saints. That's not a coincidence, that's one for every day. It's common for a Macedonian to be named for one of these saints and so, on that saint's day of the year, that Macedonian commemorates what is called a "name day." Celebrations range from a few guests to lavish spreads to which half the town is invited. And this applies to houses as well, except that, as Boroslav (the younger) explained to us last night, how the name is selected is a bit different. An Orthodox priest comes to the home with a book of saints (maybe the Audobon Official Field Guide to Icons) and after saying a few prayers, opens the book to a random page. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is your house's saint. 

8:45pm -- The wine and rakia are really flowing now and the crowd has thickened considerably. Jillian and I are seated across the table from a colleague of our host. They're both police officers, but at this moment I can't shake the notion that this fellow would make the most wonderful Russian henchman in an old James Bond movie. Squat with a deeply lined face under his balding head, he has an enormous laugh and he's drinking the rakia like it's water. He knows just enough English to be really, really funny. "I learn from television," he says. "Television is a free course in English," I reply rather awkwardly in Macedonian. He roars with laughter. Yes, it is. 

9:20pm -- The place is packed. Neighbors, family and friends have all arrived and now I'm glad we got here when we did. We've got great seats with a view of everything. Jillian is taking note of the portraits hung prominently in the kitchen and living room. One is an exceptionally amateurish painting of Dragan, son of Boroslav and father of the other Boroslav. Shouldn't this be the thing collecting cobwebs? On the other wall is The Last Supper. 

10:10pm -- When I was a kid I had a magic set, the sort of thing that probably could have produced some really cool tricks if I hadn't been so lazy about it. What I really remember about it was the Bottomless Water Jug, or something to that effect. Due to what I can only imagine was a false bottom, concealing an inner compartment, this jug never seemed to run out of water. Well, after twenty years I think I've been reunited with that little jug, except that instead of the tap water of my youth it now contains wine. No sooner have I taken a sip of wine than our very gracious host refills my glass. I swear I've been staring at the same full glass of wine for three hours.

10:30pm --"Where do you live?" asks Goldfinger.
"Oh, they live over by the church, next to the auto school," replies another man, before we can answer. He gives us a shrug. "I work for the city, checking water. I see you bill."
"How much to they use?" asks someone else.
"About 5 cubic meters," he says.
"Is that a lot?" asks yet another guest.
"Not really."
Oh. Good. Is it more or less than what's in my wine glass?

11:35pm -- We've learned that it's never a good idea to hint to your Macedonian host that it's time for you to get going. Macedonians tend to interpret that as "I'm just getting started," "Would you fill up my glass, for god's sake?" or "When is the next round of food?" No, it's better to just stand, using brute force if necessary, and make your way to the door. We do just that, narrowly avoiding the roving host and his quick-draw wine bottle/bottomless jug. "Leaving so soon?" the table asks. Yeah, well, I try to limit my drinking to five consecutive hours or less. We thank our hosts for a really great evening and step out into the brisk, clean air. Happy anniversary, house. Happy anniversary, us.