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

1 comment:

Sara Ray said...

nice summary of the night!! ps i like the "close of service countdown" feature..... i had a great time catching up with you last tuesday and hopefully will catch up with both of you guys soon. have a good one!

sara ray