April 27, 2009

The "Other" Part of Town

I want to rock your Gypsy soul/

Just like way back in the days of old

-Van Morrison, "Into the Mystic"

A strange word that is, Gypsy. It literally refers to that group of people also known as the Roma, but a glance at the word's appendages reveals some deep-seeded feelings about the people and their culture. Take Van Morrison's lyrics; he sings of the romantic Gypsy. This sentiment has been expressed by others, including U2's Bono, who couches a woman's "Gypsy heart" in a song about taming her "wild horses." Nomadic, unconventional, vaguely artsy, hard to pin down--that's the Gypsy of romance and mystery. In other words, a sort of ethnic bohemian. Except that bohemians generally weren't a target of Hitler's Final Solution.

But there's another side to this word that reveals some darker feelings about the Roma. Certainly you've heard the phrase "to be gyped", as in, "He gyped me!" or "He ripped me off!" That precise phrase may not exist in Macedonia, but its central idea sure does: that Roma are nothing by thieves.

And how about the Gypsy moth, that dreaded insect that inhabits a tree just long to completely kill it before moving on to another? This reflects the Western attitude regarding the historically nomadic nature of the Roma people.

Among the 15,000 or so inhabitants of our town, roughly one thousand are Roma. They mainly live on one unpaved street. It’s a slum. Many families don’t have running water or consistent electricity and their roofs leak. Unemployment is nearly ubiquitous. Almost no one has graduated from high school. In other words, if you were to look up the phrase “cycle of poverty” somewhere, this community’s picture would be right there.

The street's called Edinstvo, the Macedonian word for "unity" or "harmony." I couldn't dream up a more bitterly ironic name for this part of town.

The attitude on the part of Macedonians towards Roma in town is one of, if not outright discrimination, severe marginalization. The Roma are, in every sense of the word, "others" and there seems little interest among Macedonians to ever change that.

I was walking from school one day with two seniors from the debate team. Along the way we crossed paths with two Roma teens who attend our English class. I stopped for a second to chat with them about our schedule and then continued on. My Macedonian students looked at me strangely and one asked, "What business do you have with those people?" I explained, but they still seemed puzzled. Their reaction mirrored a common belief here: the Roma can't be helped, they don't want to be helped, so they shouldn't be helped. Don't bother.

Of course, the situation is more complex than the surface suggests. We've heard various, conflicting reports about the municipality' efforts to aid and integrate the community. Did they offer to build new, safe housing for the Roma? Or did they attempt to bulldoze half the settlements because they're an eyesore? Were the candidates for mayor in last month's election making legitimate promises to help the Roma or simply manipulating the most desperate community for votes? With some notable exceptions, Jillian and I have not found a lot of good will toward the Roma and certainly nothing that would translate into municipal support. But we can't be sure.

On the other hand, there is a lot of unity on Edinstvo; it sometimes feels like a town all to itself. When Jillian and I walk up the rough cobblestone street, just barely wide enough for the rarest of car to pass, we are met with waves and greetings from a multitude of adults, teens and young children outside--playing, standing, sitting. It constantly feels like a block party either just wrapped up or is just about to start. Because the community is so small, everyone literally knows everyone else and where they live and always knows what they're doing.

But it's hardly a block party: the living conditions on Edinstvo are quite dreadful. Many of the homes are barely fit to be called so. As much as I'd love to document some of this with our camera, I still can't bring myself to take pictures of the homes or the trash-filled gulley that runs directly down the center of Edinstvo like a polluted artery. I think it'd feel like some kind of sick voyeurism.

Instead we take pictures of the children. Between our work at the kindergarten and weekly English classes we teach for Roma kids and teens, we've developed some really nice relationships with them. And they just love getting their pictures taken and then looking at them on our camera's tiny viewing screen. Like sadistic mathematicians wielding permutations on their hapless victims, these kids seem to figure every conceivable combination for posing in photographs and then insisting we take them all. From a recent trip to the neighborhood:

There's so much more to say about this community and the relationships we've established there and the kindergarten. But it will have to wait. We'll keep you posted.

April 13, 2009

New and Old

Everything old is new again.

Here's Jillian on Saturday. It was a beautiful day and spring has truly arrived. This picture seemed the perfect way to talk about our town for a bit:

#1--That's the river that runs through our town, the Kriva. It means "windy" or "bendy", but if a person is kriva, then they're "guilty". We know this word very well, since it's one of Safet's favorites. "I'm not guilty," he's fond of saying, his generic cop-out for any problem that may arise, including, but not limited to, the children wrestling, the parents complaining, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the fact that I still do not have an orangutan butler.

Just a few days before I took this picture we received roughly 10 inches of snow and the mountains got even more. Then those ol' Chinook winds blew through the valley and it was suddenly spring and 60 degrees and that snow became water. Though it's hard to tell from the picture, the Kriva is raging. Normally a sedate river that would be perfect for something called Lazee Daze Intertube Park were it not for the trash-strewn embankment, the Kriva is running fast and maybe threatening to take down some of the hand-made foot bridges that criss-cross town like the stitch work of a blind doctor. Speaking of which...

#2--Jillian's standing on one of those bridges. It has a railing on only one side and it lists slightly in the other direction. Still, it's brand new and feels a lot sturdier than the next bridge down, about a quarter of a mile. That bridge is straight out of The Temple of Doom, complete with the missing boards where Short Round's foot went through.

#3--This particular bridge was built to provide a direct route across the river to the market. The view is mostly blocked by those cars and the fence, but take my word for it: the place is packed. The market has itself a little winter snooze when just about the only things you can find there are potatoes, potatoes, eggs, and potatoes. Macedonia's produce goes dormant for a couple of months and then suddenly comes back all at once.

People from the nearby villages arrive early to claim their stands and booths; the latecomers settle for laying their things out on a tarp or blanket. Talk about fresh: most of these farmers rise at dawn, literally pull the spinach and lettuce and carrots from the ground, load them up in the old Zastava, and drive into town for the market. There's plenty of fruit, too, including apples, pears and, later, more watermelon than at a minstrel show.

#4--Even by the time I've written this most of that snow on the hillside has vanished and there's even some trees starting to blossom. Unfortunately for me this means seasonal allergies, which I only started experiencing a few years ago. Itchy eyes and sneezing, mostly. A teacher at school asked me if I had anything for it. No, but I'll buy some, I replied. No need! She assured me that her family has a wonderful onion tea that they drink to keep away the allergies. She'll bring me some. Just to be sure, I checked: Benadryl is not made from onions.

Everything new looks old again.

I was talking to my doctor down at the hospital/
He said, "Son, it says here you're 27, but that's impossible/
You look like you could be 45"

That quote comes from an old Jackson Browne song about a certain, er, recreational drug, but he could very well have been singing about eastern Europe, both its people and buildings. Communist-era architecture was not exactly known for its quality, but I'm sorry to report that, at least in our town, the shodiness lives on. The major supermarket in town laid down its entranceway steps with what were clearly indoor tiles; a month later they were breaking off in pieces. A road was paved just around the corner from us and the Tetris-like chunks of cement, meant to fit together to create the curb, were put in all the wrong places; the curb has since completely crumbled.

These are two small examples of why so many buildings around here appear a lot older than their actual age. Meanwhile, there are a number of small homes built during the years of Turkish occupation--over 100 years ago--that remain standing and lived in.

And it's not just the buildings worn beyond their years. I'm normally pretty lousy at guessing people's ages and in Macedonia I'm a total waste. Years of grueling work, few days off, poor diets,heavy drinking and smoking or some combination of all of those things have made for an adult population that, well, just looks old. One of our neighbors is 32. I was shocked to hear that number. Equally true for a man we see around from time to time. Early 50s? You've gotta be kidding me. I would have put him at 70.

But who am I kidding? We come from a culture where it's not good enough to look your age; people actively try to look younger and there's entire industries built upon that effort. To the developing and undeveloped world that might sound like a sick joke. Occasionally I see Avon pamphlets laying around in offices and I'm not sure whether to feel a bit revolted that this part of Americana has seeped in or whether to say, "Hey, good for you, if it makes you feel better. Isn't that why we do it?"

Spring has just arrived, so I'll go with the latter sentiment.

April 06, 2009

Opening Day

Beginnings are fun. Picture your best experiences and revelations, most rewarding travels, sweetest romances, greatest jobs. Wasn't the beginning just fantastic? This is especially true when you've waited a long time for it or worked particularly hard. That slow, click-click-click climb up the rollercoaster; then the moment just before you drop into infinity. That moment hangs out there like something truly special. That's the beginning. Here's three:

1) Minds Being Opened: Just over a month ago I wrote about this fabulous research paper that Bube and Tina drafted about perceptions of ethnic relations in Macedonia. They surveyed students at the high school and produced a very compelling write-up with the results, all in hopes of being invited to the 5th Kosovar Youth Leadership Conference on Social Issues. The conference was hosted by the American School of Kosova. They were indeed invited, the first Macedonians to attend.

Jillian and I were happy for them and for ourselves as well: we would be traveling with Bube and Tina to Prishtina, the capital city, to join in on the conference and see the girls in action. A leadership conference for young people seems especially apropos in Kosovo, the center of so much recent violence and ethnic hatred (though the city is quite safe now). Unfortunately for Jillian and I it was not be--the American embassy in Skopje has some restrictions on our travel to Kosovo and we just couldn't convince them that this conference was essential.

Whatever. So mom and dad wouldn't let us go to the party, like, I told them that it was totally safe. And there'd be parents there!

Well, the important thing is that Bube and Tina got to go and they had a very fulfilling time. Their presentation proved to be particularly interesting because their research had revealed some rather strong feelings regarding ethnic Albanians on the part of Macedonian high school students. The majority of Kosovars are ethnic Albanian, which made their topic all the more relevant and touchy--and they took that opportunity and excelled. In an email to us, one of the conference organizers praised Bube and Tina for being "so balanced, reasonable and objective in their analysis." They were a real hit.

And best of all, Prishtina was a real hit for the girls--they made new friends and experienced a new city. For a variety of reasons mostly having to do with historical ethnic tensions, Kosovo is a kind of boogeyman (and illegitimate) nation to many people around here. When I mentioned the conference to a couple of teachers at the high school there was a noticable flinch on their part, as if I'd just said the girls would be parachuting into the mountains of Afghanistan, the PowerPoint presentation tucked safely into their bullet-proof helmets.

So perhaps the most important thing that Bube and Tina got out of this experience was a view of Kosovo and its people. Knowing them, I'm positive they will share this with friends and family and if that's the beginning of a better understanding of things beyond stereotypes, rumors and fear, then that's something to be really proud of.

Bube and Tina took lots of pictures during the conference, but my favorites are not those of them presenting, but of them bowling...their first time ever! Here's Tina:

2) The Future's Wide Open: As Bube and Tina made their way back from Kosovo, Jillian and I were busy making table centerpieces and adorning toothpicks. Okay, so really Jillian was doing these things, though she did let me do a little coloring. My primary contribution to the surprise party was buying two bottles of the best champagne 190 denars ($4) can get you. In this case it was something called Ambassador, supposedly a product of Italy. Our main market doesn't carry champagne, so I went to same little store where we buy our 2-liter plastic bottles of Serbian beer. The owner didn't quite understand that I wanted the Ambassador, as if he'd forgotten he carried it.

The occasion for the surprise party was Bube's acceptance to Wellesley College. The celebration was clinched when she received her financial aid package a few days later. Tuition, room, board and fees--all covered. A cool $49,300 per year. To Macedonians in our town, where a good job pays you around four or five thousand dollars annually, that's pretty much fake money. It's doesn't sound real and it certainly doesn't sound like something you'd pay for college. [Side note: Jillian and I have worked rigorously to assure all people involved that this is considered expensive by American standards. I'm slightly bothered by the notion that someone who learns of Wellesley's cost would assume all Americans earn the sort of money that makes attending such schools easy.]

Back to those decorations. It isn't in Jillian's DNA to do anything halfway, so long after I would have said, "Good enough," she was putting finishing touches on a poster, wrap-around labels for the little champagne plastic cups and, hilariously, an over-the-top Wellesley "crown" that Bube had to wear in all her pictures throughout the evening. Everything was done in Wellesley's school colors, right down to those finger food toothpicks.

The party was held at Bube's house and it was a great success. Bube was certainly surprised to find a small gathering of friends and family in the living room when she walked through the door and even more surprised to find her living room looking like an official Wellesley banquet hall. The night's cresendo came during an impromtu performance of Elvis tunes by Bube's father who was, shall we say, enough glasses of ouzo in to possibly think he was The King.

Bube only gets a few days to soak up all this good news--then it's back to work. Much like all those SAT and college essay study sessions we held throughout the fall, Jillian and I have planned a slate of "classes" for Bube on everything from the college syllabus to social life in the dorms to what Boston is like.

With Bube and that absurd crown

Bube and her parents celebrate the good news

3) Peanuts and Crackerjacks: Today is baseball's opening day, which means that we have exactly one baseball season left in Macedonia (actually, we leave a couple of weeks after the World Series ends, but close enough). There's something comforting in that knowledge, in that with each Red Sox win or loss we're one game closer to the end of service. We've just ordered the online baseball TV package, so we can watch any Sox game we want.

Which just gave me a great idea for one of Bube's classes...