#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.