March 28, 2009

School: The Agony and the Ecstacy

Part 1: A Hunger No Food Can Fix

"Was ist das?" the parent demanded of me.

We have this problem among the Roma community in our town--they all think we're German. It doesn't seem to matter how many times we tell them we're American, we're always greeted with "guten tag." They sign off with "auf wiedersehen." Goal 2 of the Peace Corps mission statement says that we volunteers should "promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of people served." Geez, we're having a hard enough time convincing people we're even from America.

So maybe this mom's question was in the wrong the language, but "what is this??" was certainly apropos of the situation: I was alone in the kindergarten with eleven 4-year olds. It was your basic garden variety hell on earth, complete with reckless running, hair pulling, pushing, screaming. Then the door to the bathroom opened to reveal one of the students (who has Down's Syndrome, I must add) standing on the sink, hands covered in soap, reaching for the tooth brushes. This mother, who was there dropping off her daughter, was understandably appalled at this situation. She demanded to know where Safet, the director of this asylum--where the inmates had clearly taken control--was and why it was only me in the room.

I really relished this moment. "I don't know where he is," I told her with a smile. "You should take this up with him." It was with pleasure that I threw Safet under the bus. He's been nothing but an obstacle over the last few weeks and on the day in question, had decided to take some sort of break, leaving me to defend myself against the hordes. But more about Safet another day.

This is about Butso. He's a boy who attends the kindergarten and who, along with his 11-year old sister Kasandra, has possibly the worst life of anyone I've ever met. His family lives in a shack up on the hill above town. This family is so poor that Butso and Kasandra both have a nice set of teeth because they can't afford to drink the cheap juice that dooms the dental health of so many Macedonian kids here. Here he is in a picture taken at our Christmas party:

Above all, Butso needs love. From what we've gleamed from multiple sources, his primary interaction with adults are the beatings he receives from his older brother, who was recently brought to court for beating up his own mother. But don't feel too badly for ol' mom--she neglects the hell out of her kids and reportedly spent money for Butso and Kasandra (given by the Germans) on a new cell phone. And don't even get me started on Kasandra. She has some clearly serious emotional problems (though she has started to warm up to us and trust us a bit) and we learned last month that she's been forced to sell herself to men in her community for food.

Back to the kindergarten. After the zoo settled down a bit we got to the business of actually trying to conduct some activities with the kids. But Butso wasn't his normal self--rambunctious, needy, often disruptive. He seemed a bit dazed and was mumbling to himself as he paced the room. It was in Romani, so I asked Safet to look at him. Turns out he saying, "Give me bread," over and over. He hadn't eaten since the previous day's lunch at the kindergarten. Safet, teary-eyed, went to get him some food and I picked him up. He clung to me, his head resting wearily on my shoulder. He switched to Macedonian, asking me repeatedly if we were eating lunch.

Safet got him a big plate of food and Butso ate slowly, still out of it. Even after he had taken his fill he was sluggish and quiet. And all I could think of was something very un-Peace Corps like: slapping the smile of his mother's face, that same smile I see every time we meet on the street. That same smile, in fact, that I had seen earlier that day. "Добар ден," she said with a big grin. Good day. How in hell could it be a good day? Your boy needs love and you won't even give him a meal...where's the smile in that?

Part 2: Jackpot

And then there's those days when all I can do is smile, because it's a day that I'll remember for a long time. It's a day when Peace Corps service feels like the best thing we ever could have done. Today was one of those days.

Bube got accepted to Wellesley.

What's that you say? You can't remember if Wellesley is ranked 5th or 6th among all American colleges? Actually, it's 4th. The fourth-best college in America just accepted Bube into the class of 2013.

Letters from colleges are still coming in, but it's going to be pretty hard to top this one. Of course, there's still the financial aid package--arriving any day now--causing some suspense, but we feel pretty confident that the school will give Bube big help.

To say that all the hard work--ours and, mostly, hers--paid off would be one heck of an understatement. Bube truly earned herself this ticket out of the Macedonian university system and into a better experience, a better life. When we went to congratulate her today at her house, I felt myself bursting with things to tell her about life on an American campus, about all the papers she'll be writing, about dorm life. But we paced ourselves. There's plenty of time to get to that. For now I'm just going to let this incredible feeling expand for awhile.

March 21, 2009

Celebrating Away From Home

A fascinating thing about living in another country, especially a developing one like Macedonia (to say nothing of the undeveloped nations where PCVs serve), is that the average often feels extraordinary. The mundane takes on epic proportions thanks to the cultural differences. I clearly remember our first early trips to the local Saturday morning market. The uneven cobblestone streets of the old town were a panorama of local villagers, overly crowded Yugos, impossibly leaning buildings and Roma children sifting through dumpsters. Then down the steps to the market's stalls of fresh produce, unmarked spices, cheap Eastern European clothing and wooden boxes of chirping baby chickens. If I wasn't an extra in the opening scene of a new Indiana Jones film, then at least I was gathering background for the next John Le Carre novel.

This sort of thing happened a lot during our first year in Macedonia. Trips to the post office--which have the unfortunate tendency to resemble roller derby--and bus trips, to name just a couple of routine matters, felt like Lonely Planet-worthy experiences. I suppose this is normal--any returned PCV reading this is undoubtedly nodding knowingly--and, really, one of the reasons we joined the Peace Corps. But there's another side to this story, one which we hadn't really considered before coming, and that's the experience of American rituals on foreign soil.

Living in Macedonia has certainly granted us a fresh view of our own country. We've seen it through foreign eyes and foreign press and felt the real time consequences of American efforts in this region (e.g. President Bush's hard push to get Macedonia into NATO last spring), to say nothing of following an entire presidential election cycle from afar.

But it's those uniquely American experiences, replicated overseas, that have been surprisingly touching and important. Most significant was the election. We cast our ballot through the mail and then on November 4th we gathered with twenty or so volunteers at our director's home in Skopje to watch the returns through the middle of the night (we're six hours ahead of EST). Seated on the floor with vegetarian lasagna and copious amounts of coffee, cheering on the states as each time zone fell like a domino, it was easy to forget momentarily that we had actually taken part in the democratic process we were watching culminate.

Then there's St. Patrick's Day. As I wrote last year, an authentic Irish pub operates in the nearest major city, Kumanovo, and just like last year, it was firing on all cylinders on Tuesday. Several PCVs had made the sojourn to the pub, as had the European Union's ambassador to Macedonia (an Irishman), a great band and lots of Macedonians who may or may not have understood what all the fuss was about. The Guinness was flowing and the band kept the evening lively with its best U2, Van Morrison and then a whole lot of other music that had nothing to do with Ireland.

The night's best moment came when one guy in our party, Conor, suggested we all drink something called an "Irish Car Bomb." I've enjoyed this particular beverage many times, but it wasn't on the menu and it somehow felt all wrong asking the Irish owner to whip us up something named after his home country's violent past. After briefly considering to call it an Iraqi Car Bomb or the Timothy McVeigh Special, we just beckoned him over and asked. Sure, he'd heard of it, but he had the ingredients all wrong and as I shouted him the correct composition over the singer's best rendition of Bono, I worried just what would come out from behind the bar. I needn't have though, for it was perfect: a half glass of Guinness and a shot glass of whiskey and Bailey's. Drop the shot glass into the pint glass and go, go, go. In my effort to coax another friend to drink one, I assured her it tasted vaguely of chocolate milk. Let's just say she'll never trust my drink judgment again.

The night was a great one and it yet again reminded me how important it is to have these American traditions, to be able to slip away from our town for the evening for St. Patrick's Day or the Superbowl or election night. Yeah, it feels different over here. Not worse, just different. Then again, that's the appeal.

Celebrating St. Patty's Day with a guy named Conor Molloy, PCV

There go the car bombs

March 06, 2009


The car hugged the corners at a cool 85 mph, its hood glinting in the early morning sun. Low-slung mountains of gray rock sat off to the right; to the left ran a long, uneven field spotted with typical red-roofed Macedonian houses and some random wandering livestock. It could have been a commercial, save for the woozy traveler in the passenger seat. That was me and I was mildly regretting my decision to join this quick jaunt to Skopje. 

And it was quick: a normal one-way trip to the capital for us is just over two hours. On the day in question, we drove to Skopje, picked up our passenger and were back in town in two hours flat. Behind the wheel sat David, a young German and part of a three-man team who'd come to check on the Roma kindergarten. The three men--David, Peter and Fritz--come from an international high school in Stuttgart and along with them come the funds for Safet's kindergarten. In other words, they are the donors. Or, I should say, the fundraising their students conduct is the donor.

Jillian and I had spent the previous night eating and drinking with these three energetic men (especially Fritz, who, at age 66, has all the spunk of any PCV I've met), filling them in on the status of the program, recommending changes and generally just having a great time talking to someone who understands what we're dealing with. So all that homemade wine and rakia wasn't exactly what the doctor ordered before our mad dash to Skopje the next morning with David. I blessed every straight stretch and cursed every curve, all the while talking with David about Macedonia and the center and Safet.  Our mission, by the way, was picking up Aida, a woman who works in a Roma organization in Skopje and also serves as their German-Macedonian translator.

The Germans, delighted to find two Americans working at the center, quickly included us in all their meetings with Safet and local government and school officials over the course of the frenetic three days. In short, the funding for the kindergarten will continue. Really great news. Now, and rightly so, the Germans are demanding that the kindergarten transition from being merely "better than nothing" to "something resembling educational." Oh, how simple that sounds! And now, like a tumble down Dumbledore's pensieve, we land in one of those meetings...

We are seated at absurdly small tables, tables usually smeared with ketchup and instant mashed potatoes by the three year olds who daily dine there. The Germans and we are joined by Safet and Ljatife, a fierce, impressive Roma woman from Skopje who the Germans have invited in to help. She specializes, we are told, in going after public schools who don't comply with anti-segregation laws. At this juncture, Fritz has told Safet that Ljatife will be coming to the center twice a month to help communicate to parents the importance of getting their kids to school, another of her fortes. Safet adamantly refuses.

"But Safet," she says patiently, "I'm coming here as a volunteer. Twice a month."
"No chance," he repeats, pushing back away from the table and wagging his finger. "You're not taking control of my center." 
Ljatife chuckles a bit at this. "No one is talking about that, Safet. This is about helping you with enrollment. I'm an advisor."
"No way. No way. You're not taking control."
Fritz has been boiling. The lid flies off. He rises. "Then forget it Safet!" he shouts in German. "In September, no money! It's over."
Safet, for reasons rooted firmly in pride, shouts back "Fine! Good! I'll find another donor!"
"Where?" an incredulous Jillian asks.
"I'll...I'll put an ad in the newspaper," Safet smugly says. 

...Yes, Safet's insecurities run pretty deep, folks. To watch him reject help from a professional, successful Roma woman was baffling, but also quite telling. Safet's mantra, "Сум еден човек," or "I am one man," which he repeats ad nauseum, is the battle cry of person who doesn't want help, doesn't want anyone infiltrating the wall he's erected around his perception of how the world works. Inside that fortress of self-imposed solitude, he's free to believe things like "all Macedonians are terrible people" or "all Roma organizations are corrupt, except mine." 

But he's not the only roadblock...City hall meeting room. Next day. 11am.

Finally, an adult-sized table. Over the table sits a cloud of smoke, heavy in the air from the half-dozen people lighting up during the meeting. The ache in my head from alcohol has been replaced by an ache from trying to follow a conversation that is being conducted in Macedonian and German, which I studied in college and remember just enough of to make this really frustrating. 

The meeting is being mediated by the mayor's first assistant, a helpful and patient guy, I think. I hope he's got some extra varnish laying around after the battle lines that are being drawn on his table. This is a classic case of a group of people trying to find any path to the solution and an opposing group seemingly looking for any obstacle they can throw up. The subject of the meeting is finding a way to eventually integrate the Macedonian and Roma kindergartens, which share a building. 

The Germans and their translator/consultant, Aida, are pushing for ways of bridging the gap--including turning the Roma kindergarten into a center for Roma and disadvantaged Macedonians, since kindergarten is not free--and the kindergarten staff resists. They're being led by the school psychologist, who apparently recently contracted rabies and is scaring the rest of us with her angry outbursts. Then she starts defending Safet (who's not design), regaling the room with her opinion of how great he is, the amazing work, blah, blah, blah.

It's obvious things aren't going to move too far when the kindergarten staff refuses to allow the Roma kindergarten to use their washing machine. They cite some obscure rule about the inspector or something. I can't wait for this meeting to end. I'd like to cite how filthy some of these poor Roma kids are. Then I'd like to cite the Mercedes that psychologist drives and suggest she have a heart, dammit. Eventually they agree to contribute towards purchasing a new machine. With a curt, "Нема проблем," which, given how they said it, roughly translates as, "No, really, it's no problem at all, you a--holes," they are on their way and the meeting is over.

...And soon the good Germans were off as well, leaving us with a rather large load of responsibility of implementing changes at the center. But with that comes their backing and the knowledge that we now have some real leverage with Safet to bring about some fundamental restructuring of how things are done: a new, healthy menu; a longer school day; a daily routine; training for the teacher on basic childhood development and classroom practices. The list goes on. And there's no time to waste.