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...

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