November 14, 2009

Then We Came to the End

When I met Jillian, I was living in San Diego and serving in the military. The Navy, to be exact. I was paying them back for the vast sums the government spent on my college education; mostly I just rose at 4am, drove to the ship I was stationed on, and spent the next several hours figuring out how I could be home by noon and on the beach by one. I proved to be quite adept at this and as a result I lead a rather charmed life so long as the ship was moored to dry land. But then there were those times when we'd go out to sea and slipping off the ship just wasn't an option. Between standing in the pilot house watching the endless expanses of ocean and ensuring we didn't crash into oil tankers that were ten miles away, my friends and I passed the time on Play Station or by listening to the enlisted guys complain about the lack of Mountain Dew on board and generally just counting down the days. If we were out for a substantial amount of time--say, 6 weeks or more--we really enjoyed that last week, when we could start saying, "This is our last Monday at sea," "This is our last Wednesday out here," and then, when the time drew really close, "This is my last breakfast," and so on.

So now I'm experiencing a bit of deja vu. A few days ago I found myself thinking, "Wow, this is my last Tuesday in Macedonia," as if Tuesday and I have a relationship here that goes way back. "I could always count on Tuesday for shorter, less chaotic lines at the market and my Macedonian always sounded more coherent, less caveman on Tuesdays."

Well, the reality is that we just passed through a "last" phase. For everything. Some of those lasts were mundane (last trip to the bank) and others difficult (seeing friends one more time). Actually, it's that second part that was the trickiest. By our calculations, we had about a half dozen homes that we just had to visit before leaving Kriva Palanka. Not a passing goodbye, not a knock on the door, oh-see-you-later, not a phone call. These were families (mostly of students) that always made us feel at home, fed us like the end of world was imminent, and were constantly curious about America and how we were faring here.

The tricky part was seeing all of them as close to the end as possible. Someone on Peace Corps staff had warned us about this: "If you make your final visit too soon, it just won't count." The first family we visited--on Monday--proved this point. We said goodbye, gave them a photo of us, thanked them for the huge meal and as we were walking out the door, the mom said, "Okay, we'll see you again before you leave. Bye!" And saying no to a Macedonian mother is like being cross-examined by a good defense lawyer. She'll always paint you into a corner until you have run out of excuses and then you break down, bawling on the witness stand, begging for forgiveness and, yes, some cake to take home, please.

Speaking of taking things home...our four suitcases, already stretched to the limit with everything we brought here two years ago plus everything we've picked up along the way, is being further assaulted by the numerous jars of ajvar we've received as gifts from the families we've visited. At last count we had something like twelve jars looking for a home in our luggage.

So we'll get them home, but what we're really taking home is the generosity of the people in Kriva Palanka. From the beginning we were welcomed here and no matter how frustrating a day or week we might have been having, we could always count on a warm reception in a Macedonian house. Lots of great food, lots of (stilted) conversation, and, now, lots of memories. I'm happy to say that we'll be celebrating Thanksgiving with Bube, who is studying at Wellesley. After all the Macedonian generosity she and her family showed us, it will feel nice to return the favor, American style.

So tomorrow we fly out of here with mixed feelings, two hundred pounds of luggage, an undoubtedly terrified little cat, and the knowledge that we most definitely made the right decision over two years ago to board that plane in Washington with the other 42 volunteers.

Ajde prijatno, Makedonija!
Goodbye, Macedonia!


GS Counselor: said...

What an amazing journey! Congratulations...welcome home!


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