#PeaceCorps MAK24: It is Tradition

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This weekend, I had the privilege of attending a two-day wedding celebration for one of the cousins on the compound. (To wit, I call it a compound because it’s a set of houses surrounding a courtyard, and meals and conversation usually happen either outdoors or in a fully functional kitchen shed. I love it: I’ve never had so much ‘family’ in my life, as the only child of an only child. I just wish I spoke more Albanian.) The ceremonies were two separate affairs: the first was women only except for the very end, and the second was the “banquet” with the bride and groom’s families all attending.

In the first ceremony, the female members of this exceptionally large Albanian family gathered at a banquet hall at a restaurant near the compound. We danced to a live singer who sang what I assume were traditional Albanian songs and he sang very well. I learnt the steps fairly quickly, but dancing for hours in heels was exhausting. However, I had loads of fun. At the end, the groom’s family sang and prayed over the bride, who looked sad and distant. I learnt that looking sad and crying is traditional at the end of this ceremony, where the male members of the bride’s family came to say goodbye to her and sent her off to her new family. There was also a red cape placed over the bride’s shoulders, welcoming her into the new “blood” of the groom’s family. (All this was explained to me by the English speaking younger son of my host mother the next day.)

The second ceremony would not look unfamiliar to an American wedding reception, except for the traditional Albanian dancing. Only the groom’s family is allowed to dance at first, and then the bride’s family. I waited rather impatiently for my chance to show off my moves. There was more dancing, just on a grander scale: this banquet hall was enormous and beautiful, and instead of one singer with a keyboard, there were two singers and a live band including a saxophone. There was also no wedding cake and no toasts (no alcohol either–this family is Muslim). However, there was the beating of forks against the table for some reason.

I was told by someone sitting at my table that the wedding was expensive, but “wrong” because it was not in the traditional wedding season, which is in July or August. Tradition is a very strong and possibly loaded word, but this ceremony felt traditional to me, and the day made sense: Friday was a national holiday and gave everyone a chance to travel for the wedding. Tradition is so many things: the way we dress, what holidays we celebrate (and how we celebrate them), the way we celebrate things like birthdays and weddings. If the wedding is traditional, why should the date matter?

The Peace Corps spends a lot of time and effort helping us integrate into the culture of the places we are sent. There are a few things that I won’t change about who I am and what I do (safety belts, for one, and petting cute animals, for another) but participating whole-heartedly in joyous occasions should be top on the list. Celebrating love is cross-cultural, no matter how one does it.

#PeaceCorps MAK24: To Market, To Market

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photo by Katie D, MAK24

The bazaar is every Tuesday, right next to my house. Last Tuesday I was too ill to go, and this Tuesday we were TOLD to go for homework, to practise the words we had just learned in class. Open air markets are a staple in European nations, popping up in larger (gentrified) cities in the USA. But to go, and be surrounded by commerce and people and exchange, gives another hint to the culture we’ve found ourselves in. I managed to buy Granny Smith apples and a cup full of raspberries to share with another trainee.

One of the things I was quite frightened about was not having a support system. I’m not known for making friends, and as an only child I don’t even have that built in system of siblings that you may or may not like. Luckily, my language class consists of three other people who are all fantastic and amazing women with interesting lives and insights, and I love spending time with each of them. I’ve also made friends with people who are in other villages, and meeting up with them on “hub/technical days” is quite uplifting.

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On Hub/Technical days: once a week, all of us MAK24 trainees come to the capital of N Macedonia, Skopje, to be trained as a group on how we’re supposed to accomplish our tasks here whilst Peace Corps Volunteers. Skopje is a capital city, but what type it’s trying to be, I don’t know. Is it trying to wear the clothes of Berlin and Paris, or stay close to its Eastern siblings like Kyiv and Tirana? Порта Македонија (Skopje’s “Arc de Triomphe”) tells one story, but the city itself tells a different one. I only spent an hour and a half exploring it, so I really have no answers and no opinions.

Other observations: the stray dog and cat population is thrice what I would have even imagined. There is no shelter system in Macedonia: some dogs are tagged, some aren’t. The tagged ones have been spayed/neutered and immunised, but there’s no telling when. We trainees have befriended dogs, because of course we have. There are wild cats that enjoy visiting my courtyard, skulking around the wood piles, and they are all very cute. I pet a cat on a walk, scandalising my Albanian-Macedonian companion. I made sure she saw me washing my hands.

This week is packed full. I have been invited to a wedding, and so a wedding shower on Wednesday, and a wedding at the weekend. Our hub day is Thursday, as Friday is the Day of the Macedonian Uprising (against fascism). The wedding is either Friday or Saturday. I hope I’m ready. I know I’ll mostly be in silent observation mode, seeing as my Albanian is very, very minimal. Watching the dubbed Turkish soaps and then the news is quite helpful, actually, but I am impatient to speak it. I feel as if we’re all impatient, honestly, to grow, to progress, to integrate. има време, as the Macedonians say. There is time.

#PeaceCorps MAK24: PST, start!

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Sometimes, when walking around my PST (Pre-Service Training) city, I feel like I’m in any European city. But then I hear the adhan (call to prayer for Muslims) and realise that there is something very different to this place. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but the sheer mix of ethnicity and culture is astounding. Western N Macedonia is heavily Albanian, and the city I find myself in has representation from all ethnicities. To best illustrate this, another PCT (Peace Corps Trainee) and I went to lunch together, and the menu was Albanian (until we got an English one). Our server was Macedonian, and they served Turkish coffee and tea to Turkish music. (Speaking of Turkish tea, it was a balm to my tea-loving soul–I have unluckily chosen another country that thrives on coffee.)

My host family is Albanian. When I say host family, I really mean host mother, as both her husband and her son are working in Germany. We live in what I would truly call a compound, houses surrounding a courtyard where we take most of our meals. She only speaks Albanian, which puts me on a bit of a back foot as I speak none of it. But I’m pretty sure I will catch on quickly and for now, charades and pointing get things done. However, my host mum does know two German words: spazieren (which means to go for a walk/a stroll) and essen (which means food). So at least I know when to eat and when to stroll about the city.

Part of a total immersion into a new and completely different culture is the ability to sit back and just let it wash over you. There are things that happen that I legitimately don’t understand, and can only describe. My host mum usually cooks dinner on a camp stove, but has two refrigerators (one for upstairs in what I call the “show kitchen” and one for downstairs in the “work kitchen”). Do I know why? No. We were warned in Orientation that we may have to negotiate for shower time because of the boiler situation (electricity is very expensive compared to the salaries); I can take showers whenever I please. My observation about having to put toilet paper in the bin in only true in my classroom now. I have a big bed and a television, and a desk at which to do my homework.

If you have ever seen Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story”, you are probably thinking that my experience does not line up with what you may have heard about Peace Corps. I can hear you thinking You have running water and electricity! You have WiFi and I see BMWs in that picture up there! But it is not without hardship–the poverty of my city is palpable. There are casinos everywhere, false hope for a desperate people. A third of the population of the city is abroad, having given up this country for a bad job. You hear the scorn in young peoples’ voices when talking about it, and the wish to go anywhere else is strong: Germany, Switzerland, Italy. America is the holy grail, but one word stops a dream: ‘Visa’. A part of my job in the Peace Corps is to show host country nationals (HCNs) the beauty and worth of their own country. I hope they are infected by my enthusiasm.

NB: Sorry for all the initialisms/abbreviations. Like any federal government programme, Peace Corps is full of them. There are a few things I have to keep private (my exact location, for example), but I will never keep these secret from you.

 

#WeekendCoffeeShare An Albanian-Macedonian Surprise

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Were we having coffee, it would be Turkish, or I would sacrifice some of my French breakfast tea for you. I haven’t even had it, so you’re welcome.

I am currently in North Macedonia, in the Polog region. The Peace Corps picked a few of us to be in the dual-language programme, which means we’ll be learning Albanian and Macedonian at the same time. I’m living with an Albanian woman who speaks no English, and I speak basically no Albanian, so the first few days should be interesting. The city I’m living in has a majority Albanian population, but that’s no guarantee where I’ll be living after these first three months.

So far, everyone has been very hospitable and helpful and I’ve felt very welcome. It’s difficult when there’s an enormous language gulf but for the most part, just saying yes or copying what other people are doing seems to help. I don’t usually have this issue when I travel, but then again I stick to countries where I know the language. I’ll be fine in a bit, but the anxiety is a bit much.

The house that I’m living in is part of a bigger compound of families all facing a courtyard. Every family’s house is different with some similarities in style and decoration. One of the houses is literally being built as we speak.

I’m looking forward to learning more about the culture as I slowly learn the language, but for now I’m soaking in as much as possible.

The Weekend Coffee Share is hosted by Eclectic Ali and the link party can be found here.

#PeaceCorps MAK24: The First Observations

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If I had to use one word to describe these past 72 hours, I would use “overwhelmed”. There is no describing the intensity of 56 people trying to get through security at JFK and onto a plane filled with confused non Peace Corps people. Nothing will describe the bleary morning arrival of those same people to the N Macedonian airport (aerodrom). Nothing will describe the first meal, the first heavy rain, the first nervous classes. We have already made friends and learnt so much about ourselves.

As it’s only been about three days since my arrival in N Macedonia, I can only talk about my first impressions. We are in the west, and the mountains here are breath-taking. We counted minarets on the way from the airport to our orientation site, and marvelled at the strangely empty detached houses along the way, musing on why they looked so new and yet were so empty. There were men selling grapes fresh from the vineyards in boxes along the motorway, and piles of rubbish were on fire as we passed.

So far, we have seen one street of our orientation site city, and I have been twice to go for tiny shops in the grocery store. We have been visited by two cats and a very loyal and dirty white dog who was baptised newly as Mochi by some trainees. I have never visited the Balkans, so the buildings feel familiar but strange at the same time.

Other observations: Remembering to throw toilet paper into the bin is tricky but I think I have perfected it. The Cyrillic alphabet is not difficult but I am struggling with it. I’m not struggling with speaking though, if I may brag. I am slightly confused on how phone service works here, even though I have a new N Macedonian number. I have only had black tea with milk once since I’ve been here, and I am missing it badly. I think I have already lost my sunglasses, which is a shame.

I am always surprised about the mundane nature of our first observations, but then I suppose we are trying to cling to some normalcy and will doing anything to keep our mind clear. Everything is different, but nothing really is, honestly. We still have to sleep and eat and learn, just in a different country. I think everything will be fine.

photo by author

#PeaceCorps MAK24: An Introduction

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Hello! My name is SD and I will be headed somewhere in North Macedonia to teach English as a Foreign Language. North Macedonia is a Balkan state, surrounded by five countries. For more information about North Macedonia, you can check out Virtual Macedonia. (None of the opinions expressed on this site is endorsed by me, the Macedonian government or the Peace Corps.)

I am 33 years old and have been teaching since 2010. I’ve taught in France, the UK and the USA, and I’ve taught English, Spanish and French. I’m fluent in English, French, German and Swedish. In the Peace Corps, I will be studying Macedonian and possibly Albanian, if I am put in a dual-language area. I love travelling, and hope to visit many of the Balkan countries surrounding Macedonia and Greece.

North Macedonia is going through some interesting changes, including joining NATO and possibly entering into talks to join the European Union. I am sure that on the ground, nothing big will be happening, but I can’t wait to see what happens on the grand stage.

This blog will be updated regularly, and photos will also be posted to my Instagram. I would love to hear from you in the comments, and thanks for visiting!

Map of North Macedonia from geology.com