September 27, 2009

The Pepper's Last Stand

If you live in Macedonia and maintain a blog, it's a good idea to have a generic ajvar-related post at the ready. Ajvar is a traditional local food made primarily from grilled, peeled peppers and an almost unimaginable quantity of sunflower oil and during early autumn nearly every household in Macedonia sets aside a weekend to make a winter's worth of the spreadable stuff. Last year we helped our landlords make ajvar, though by the time we got there the only task left for us was the constant stirring over the open fire.

This year, while Bube's away enjoying the American college life, we joined her family to partake in the ajvar tradition. Her father, Zoran, went to the weekly market near the center of town and bought 110 pounds of peppers and the grilling began in their yard. There was also Bube's mother, brother, aunt, and 78-year old grandmother, for whom making ajvar is about as automatic as breathing. Jillian and I were merely beer-drinking spectators during the grilling portion of the program; our real value was revealed during the peeling process. All 110 pounds of peppers, still warm, needed to be peeled before they could go through the grinder.

Peeling that many peppers takes awhile. In a rare few cases, the peel just slides off the meat of the pepper, but mostly it's a painstaking affair. Once the peel is off, the stem and seeds are disposed of and you move on the next. The family sits close together, throwing skins and seeds into a common bucket and talking while they work. It's very much an old world tradition, one of time and patience.

Apropos of this sentiment, Jillian asked Bube's brother, Milan, if he and his generation of classmates would continue the ajvar tradition when they were grown with families. Milan replied that he's never really given the subject any thought, though Zoran is convinced that young Macedonians won't be peeling peppers in the near future. Based on our experiences here, I have to agree. In the cities of Macedonia, modernity has firmly taken root, while in the villages the past is still present in many of the daily routines. It's in towns like Kriva Palanka where you can actively witness the old life being eclipsed by the new.

Having grown up in a thoroughly modern environment in which technology is king and traditions of the past were mostly abandoned by our baby boomer parents, we younger Americans have an inherent belief that progress is always for the better. When we can advance, we should. This mentality, after all, has borne us incredible achievements in work, medicine, leisure, and convenience. Along with such achievements come the markedly inane and questionably necessary peripheries; for every computer program that makes life easier, there are ten that seemingly exist only to kill brain cells. But that's to be expected. And while it's quaint to look at the villager riding his donkey through the streets of Palanka and remark, "Wow, he's from another time," it's a bit silly to think that modern automobiles are not clearly a major advance over beasts of burden.

Still, I think it's important for young people to recognize that something gets lost when society marches forward. Being in Macedonia has taught me this: it's okay to recognize and revere these vanished (or quickly disappearing) traditions without feeling like some sort of reactionary, pining for things that will never come back. The young people of our town are definitely looking forward, towards the future and the new, and I think that's great. But I'm also very happy for boys and girls like Milan who get to still daily experience such family-strengthening traditions as peeling peppers and making ajvar.

Bube's father and aunt grilling many, many peppers

Hands busy at work peeling those peppers

September 02, 2009

Starts and False Starts

Like so many people my age, I can clearly remember my first Trapper Keeper. What a marketing coup those were--hardbound containers for organizing your folders ("trappers") with a built-in notebook, all sealing up nicely with a thick piece of velcro. Mine was tiger-striped, which I assure you was all the rage among the fourth graders in the late 1980s, and my folders sported the sort of astronaut and rainbow designs now found on posters with titles like "Perseverance" or "Integrity". Yeah, my first was awesome.

Trapper Keepers provided some of the best memories for what is a time-honored tradition around the world, back to school shopping. Notebooks, pens, pencils, erasers, and later (unfortunately for the Bank of Mom and Dad) the coolest clothes and accessories. What is lost on us as kids in all the excitement of getting that fresh supply is the underlying theme of late August: school is important and so being prepared for school is also important. I may have seen my tiger stripes as evidence of my eminent coolness, but to my parents they were simply a small piece of their financial and moral commitment to my education.

With school starting here this week, the school children of Kriva Palanka are out in force making the necessary purchases. Sadly, this is not the case on Edinstvo, the rundown street where most of the town's Roma population reside. For many families there and for many reasons, education is simply not a priority; for those families where education is valued, buying new school supplies every year is not always possible. Jillian's experiences in the primary school showed her what a stigma this situation creates--Roma children are teased by Macedonian students and neglected by teachers for not having even a pencil with which to do their work. This is one of the many factors leading to high drop-out rates in this community.

This year, I'm happy to say, the community received some wonderful donations to ensure the children are better prepared. My Alma mater, Holy Cross, heard about our work in the community and sent us a couple boxes worth of school supplies, including some pencil cases that the kids just loved. Additionally, a group of teachers from Germany--the same ones who fund the Roma kindergarten--donated some additional money for supplementary supplies like notebooks.

Distributing the supplies was a real pleasure for us. First we conducted a sort of census of the community and tried determine how many primary school-aged children live on Edinstvo. Establishing a true number was virtually impossible; the neighborhood is a swirl of ragtag homes built along dirt paths branching off one main cobblestone road. Parents aren't always easy to find and many of the kids don't know their birth dates, what grade they should be in, or even their last names. Still, we managed to assemble a list of around 95 eligible children. We returned the next day and passed out the goods to every child, regardless of how likely it seems he or she will actually attend school. We received some much-needed help in this endeavor from three Roma teenagers, all of whom start high school this year. They are a fine example for the younger children.

School children with their new supplies

Notebook, pencil case, pencils, eraser, sharpener, and crayons.
It's a start.

Throughout our efforts to tally the children, Jillian and I maintained a mental list of the preschool-aged children on Edinstvo. The Roma kindergarten center continues this fall "under new management." Finally, Safet has been fired. We've complained about his poor attitude before on this blog, but truth be told we've held back most of our harshest complaints. The man has no business managing this education center. His interests lie in control and power, nothing more.

And so it continues. Completely unwilling to go quietly into that good night, he is refusing to yield, despite receiving his termination letter from the German donors. He alone has the keys to the center and so plan as we might for the new school year with the Macedonian teacher and her new Roma assistant, Safet still presents an obstacle. The municipality, which owns the building, isn't interested enough in the situation to make any strong moves. Yes, the mayor supports us and our efforts and, yes, when a new contract is drawn up between the Germans and the city, the locks will be changed and Safet will be banished.

Until then, however, Safet is operating the center with no staff, no money, and no clue--and all the while confusing the hell out of the parents. This reminds me of some banana republic, where the inept, former leader refuses to accept the results of internationally sanctioned elections and instead sets up a shadow government deep in the jungle somewhere.

If ever there was a place to use a tiger-striped Trapper Keeper.