August 29, 2009

The Carnivore's Carnival

It's good to be the butcher's friend. Benefits include, but are not limited to, incredibly tasty little sausages during any random visit at three in the afternoon, perfectly flavored hamburger patties for lunch, and an overstuffed tupperware container of pork steaks for the road. And the guy loves James Bond, so we have a lot to talk about between bites of his delicious products. The butcher, Kosta, is the husband of the Macedonian teacher at the Roma center and as we gear up for this fall and all the changes coming at the center (more on that in another post), we've been spending some quality time at their house. No complaints here. Really, his little sausages are amazing.

Macedonia is a pork and chicken country, especially here in the east where the lack of Muslim Albanians means pigs can be eaten with impunity. In fact, when you order a hamburger, what you're getting is not beef, but what they call смешено месо, or mixed meat, though I think it's predominantly pork. All this falls under the broad category of скара--grilled meat. Virtually all restaurants in Macedonia feature this. During my brother's visit last summer we went to a place here in Kriva Palanka and asked for a regional specialty which, we learned, is not a summer item. The waiter nearly deep-sighed us out of the joint for ordering what is essentially a pork-and-egg pizza. Sound gross? It's to die for. Anyway, with that option off the table, we said what basically translates into "Rummage around for some meat, any meat. Cook it. Decorate it with cabbage. Bring it to us." What we got was a typical Macedonian meal.

Which brings me to the last few days here in town. The beautiful monastery that sits just a mile or so outside of Kriva Palanka has been celebrating a holiday and this normally sleepy town is wide awake with tourists from Serbia and Bulgaria for the celebrations. The monastery itself is crowded with food carts, vendors selling cheap souvenirs, and cotton candy. A local family is running the always-popular ring toss game. We didn't see anyone win.

But best of all, the monastery and the town are crowded with grilled meat and draft beer, one giant tailgate. You can't walk ten feet down the street without stumbling upon a grill and a tap. Every restaurant and cafe is getting in on the action and the sidewalks, normally reserved for blatantly-illegal-but-tolerated car parking, are full of tables and chairs and umbrellas. The weather is sunny and warm. Game on!

The crowds at the monastery do love their meat.

The simplicity is as delicious as the food. With a nice view of the twelfth-century church on the monastery grounds, we took a seat next to a pair of men. Between them were several empty bottles of beer and a couple shot glasses. Someone came up and asked what we wanted. My inner caveman replied, "Meat. Beer." Within a few minutes a nice spread of sliced meat appeared, served with five or six toothpicks for stabbing and inserting into my crudely opened and salivating mouth, along with our beers.

Back in town, we took in some local folk dancing and then took a seat and--what the hell--ordered some more meat and bread and beer. Filling our stomachs with such tasty and absorbent things proved to be the correct move because shortly thereafter, among the steady stream of people moving up and down Kriva Palanka's only main street, we spotted some friends who then joined us and insisted on buying a "few" rounds of beer.

According to the FDA, we took care of our meat allotment for the next 2-3 weeks. Then again, the butcher invited us over for some barbecuing on his terrace tomorrow...

Video: Traditional Macedonian folk dancing at the festival

August 14, 2009

The Future's In Their Hands

The question was this: Would you accept a job from your cousin that you were woefully unqualified for--even if you had a friend who was qualified--if you had been unemployed for two years? Eyes squinted and heads leaned back as the boys pondered this, one of a half-dozen queries posed to them during an hour-long session on ethical decision making. This one was particularly thorny, for it addresses two major, interrelated issues facing Macedonia today--unemployment and nepotism--and the answers the boys provided covered the spectrum. Responses ranged from "Of course I'd take the job, I need the money," to "No, it just wouldn't be fair to others." This type of honesty prompted excellent discussions, most of which eventually came to the same conclusion. In these situations, including cheating on the soccer field and plagiarism at school, everyone is doing it, they argued. How can we expect to get ahead if we don't?

All week long at the National Leadership Camp the staff challenged the 75 boys to stretch themselves, their thinking, their outlooks on life, through discussions, activities, and teamwork games. The boys, ages 13-18, came from all over Macedonia and were representative of the country's ethnic makeup. In addition to the more serious sessions, which also touched on human rights and democracy, the boys partook in American football, baseball, and art classes.

Many Macedonians we have met are both proud of their country and yet pessimistic about its future. The boys at camp were, to a large degree, reflective of that double-edged sentiment, though at the same time open to the idea that they hold the power to change things. The "everyone else does it" mentality has to end somewhere, we argued with them. Why not you?

The boys gathering on the first day

Much like last year, my favorite moments at the camp came during discussions about Macedonia's future and playing baseball with the boys. After a day of classes, they were always ready to hit the makeshift diamond for a (more or less) real game of baseball. Average pop-ups proved to be hilarious adventures and ground balls took ridiculous hops and turns on the uneven field. Hitters ran to first base holding the bat. Cows walked across the diamond. And, sheesh, my pitching arm was exhausted.

A closing ceremony wrapped up the week, giving all the boys a chance to show off what they'd learned through a series of skits and then a candle-lighting. After the perfunctory lampooning of the staff, the boys got serious and showed us all that the week had been a worthwhile one. Listening to them talk about leadership, friendship and interethnic dialogue, I was reminded yet again that the youth will carry the day in Macedonia.

Resting with a group during a hike

I'm leading a group--which is all tied together--through a team-building game

August 04, 2009

Tour de Greece

Once on this blog I wrote that I hoped to someday have a beer named after me, a nice ale perhaps. Tasty (if not tasteful) immortality. But after touring many of the archaeological sites and museums of Greece, I'm beginning to question this. No, what I really need to withstand the crushing anonymity of time is a marble bust. I can now see that my chiseled face, chiseled in stone, along side Jillian's, will have people two millennia from now wondering exactly who, "Dan Kearney, Human" was.

This could be me.

I know this is possible now because I've been to Greece where we just wrapped up a fantastic two week trip with my parents. Inside the National Archaeological Museum there's a whole colony of marble busts and statues: sages, seers, philosophers, emperors and gods. You expect those, but what I didn't expect to see mixed among the legends were ordinary citizens. There was "Man, 100 B.C.", and "Woman, 61 B.C.", and so on, saved for posterity. Who were they? Who knows, but over 2000 years later there I was, considering their lives.

The sites from which the artifacts were pulled were even more impressive--it was a veritable tour of the ancient world, from the Minoans on Crete and the Mycenaeans on the Peloponnese to the classical Greeks at Athens, Olympia and Delphi.

At Delphi, getting some sage advice from the Oracle

Ancient Mycenae, source of the Homeric tales, was particularly fascinating (despite the 104° heat) because it was one of those moments when something you've learned in school all comes rushing back. It was fun to consider Agamemnon, Helen, Argos, and the war with Troy while standing atop the ruins of the ancient palace. Legends tells us, that the Mycenaeans contracted out much of the construction of the palace to the Cyclops, the ancient world's day laborers, who built the daunting walls and the famous Lion's Gate entrance, both of which still stand. But neither of those prepare the visitor for entering the Treasury of Atreus, an immense beehive-shaped burial chamber. On second thought, maybe a marble bust isn't the way to go...

Dan atop the bee-hive tomb thought to be Agamemnon's

In both climate and terrain, Greece is much like Southern California, so it makes sense that it gets mentioned in Joni Mitchell's 1970 ode to the Golden State. She sings about having her camera stolen by a lovable "redneck" islander, and while I can't confirm the presence of thieves, I can wholeheartedly agree that Grecian islands are where it's at. In addition to Crete, full of beautiful beaches and Venetian villas, we visited Santorini, where we slept in a cave. Seriously.

Some millennia ago one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions ever to occur on Earth turned a small Mediterranean island into three or four smaller islands and the largest, Santorini, shows plenty of the evidence of that trauma. For one, volcanic rock is scattered everywhere and much of the local art is based on shaping and sculpting it. The blast also left much of the island's jagged cliffs dotted with caves made from the porous volcanic rock. These caves are basically the pre-historic version of a climate controlled apartment. Warm in the winter and cool in the summer, these caves were historically where the island's poor lived, until someone got the bright idea that visitors might pay to stay in them. The rest is tourism history and now these caves and the cliff side they occupy, painted white, are some of the most photographed sites in all of Greece.

A look from our cave villa in Santorini

It was on Santorini that my parents got their first--but not their last--taste of Balkan hospitality. Following a meal out, the waiter invited us in for a round of rakia (a regional liquor that could probably have powered early trains), called "raki" or "tsikoudia" in Greece. Much to my surprise, my father seemed to like it and went on to drink it on a number of occasions. And forget sipping the stuff, as is custom, he just sent it straight down the hatch. Shame he couldn't make it to Macedonia, he'd be a bit hit.

During the epic final scene of "For Your Eyes Only", James Bond scales an impossibly high vertical rock face to reach a beautiful old, asymmetrical building where he inevitably saves the girl and foils the villain. Once you get past Roger Moore, who somehow manages to seem wooden while rock climbing, you'll invariably ask, "Where did they film this?" Though in the movie the building is some elaborate hunting lodge, it's actually a monastery in an area of Greece called Meteora. In response to the impending Turkish invasion some 600 years ago, Greek Orthodox monks retreated to the rocky landscape and built 24 sanctuaries in some of the most unlikely places. Today, 6 remain.

The Holy Monastery of Varlaam, built in 1541

Those first pioneering monks should be happy to know the Ottomans never found then, but the tour buses sure did. Winding along roads presumably designed with pack mules in mind, the buses deliver the visitors by the thousands on a daily basis and make driving for us mere mortals in cars slightly harrowing.

But past those buses and crowds are the views, which are something a bit like the Grand Canyon: everywhere you look, it's a post card waiting to happen. The "what" is impressive enough--elegantly minimalist monasteries with fascinating frescoes--but it's the "how" that really blows the mind. How did the monks do it? What compelled them, after arriving at the base of a towering and jagged rock formation, to say, "Yeah. Let's build up there. Get that prime real estate while it's still available." Maybe they hired some Cyclops.

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