#PeaceCorps MAK24: Conditions of Hardship

What is hardship? What would be a hardship for you? Living far from home, or not having hot water whenever you wanted it? Is a squat toilet a hardship, or having to eat food you don’t like? The third core expectation of the Peace Corps is “Serve where the Peace Corps asks you to go, under conditions of hardship if necessary, and with the flexibility needed for effective service.”

People don’t usually picture a European country as a place with conditions of hardship. North Macedonia is probably not as difficult a service location as say, Mongolia or rural Senegal. But there are still hardships: a conservative, insular culture; political and ethnic tensions that feel familiar, yet alien and sometimes frightening; language difficulties that make you feel stupid (currently, I have the vocabulary of an eight year old in Albanian and Macedonian). With those hardships come opportunities, though: N Macedonia is such a friendly, warm place. This is the first year my city has hosted trainees, and families are hosting strangers in their house, and I have never felt unwelcome. My host family is impressed by how much I try and speak Albanian, and many other people have applauded my efforts. I am understood at the пазар (open-air market), whether speaking Albanian or Macedonian. I can read text messages/snaps from my Albanian host family, and I can answer them.

A Facebook friend mentioned Lysgaard’s Curve to me. It’s the idea that people have a period of adjustment that usually comes with negative reactions to their new culture. I have felt this dip a few times, and know it will probably continue. Honestly, though, as a third culture child, I’ve never really felt at home anywhere, so why not make a home here?

Things on my mind:

  • Cultural achievement, unlocked: fussing at one of the women in the compound because she wasn’t wearing socks.
  • Liking the taste of the latte macchiato at my favourite café, but only that. Coffee is still vile to me.
  • Using Spanish, a language I’ve only recently learnt, on my practice LPI (Language Proficiency Interview).
  • Meeting the mayor of my city and ending up on the local news, and then being recognised by people at the пазар.
  • Having the assistant director of my school compliment me to my Macedonian LCF (Language/Cultural Facilitator).

Additionally: there was a massive earthquake that hit Albania early this morning. We felt the tremors here on the west side of N Macedonia, once when the earthquake hit, and once more a few hours later. Peace Corps has volunteers in Albania, and my host mother’s younger son is there as well. Showing solidarity with our neighbours and ethnic family there, as well as the volunteers.

#PeaceCorps MAK24: A New Home

All of us have gone to visit our next sites where we will be living for the next two years after swearing in. As I mentioned last time, I’ll be staying in the same city where I have been training, so I won’t be learning anything new. The only difference is that I will be staying with a new host family in a different part of the city.

As a TEFL volunteer, I will be co-teaching with one or two English teachers in a high school. It’s the same high school in which I did my practicum sessions, and I have already met my counterparts. Counterparts are Host Country Nationals (HCNs) who will let us into their worksites to help and create new development opportunities.

My new host family is also Albanian. There is a father, a mother and a daughter. One of the other trainees is already here for the training session, so it seems very strange to occupy her space. She has photos of all her friends and family, which is quite comforting, even though they’re strangers to me. It seems odd to be in a family for three days and then be away for a fortnight, but I can see why Peace Corps does this.

On the drive back from Skopje, my counterpart and I talked about life in the Balkans, which is/was quite enlightening–Balkan history isn’t something that’s focussed on in the West, unless you go out of your way to study it. It is a quite tumultuous and sometimes sad history. We must remember that unlike us in the West, who have not seen much intense internal warfare (though conflict may be a different story), that people who suffered this are still alive, and most are just in their 30s and 40s. Some were internally displaced, some were made refugees. What effects on society, especially a young one, does this have? We must keep it in mind as we bring development and educational opportunities to this country.

I can’t wait to see what these days bring, and what the rest of my time brings. I’m sure there will be some hardships, but I know this will be fruitful for everyone involved.

#PeaceCorps MAK24: This is My City

This past Friday, we were given our permanent sites. Permanent sites are where PCVs spend the remaining 24 months of their service. And I have been chosen to remain in my training site! Everything I could have asked for, really. It’s big enough with lots of things to see and do, close to nature and with very good transport links to all over N Macedonia. I’ll be working at a school at which I’ve been doing my practicum, with people who I have already met. I’m lucky that my transition won’t be as difficult as some others.

Speaking of practicum, I will be doing solo teaching on Thursday and Friday. I have been busy writing lesson plans that are engaging enough and still fitting with the really important curriculum. It will be interesting to meet Macedonian students and have them doing things in class that they’re probably not used to. It will be a good introduction to students that I will be seeing often.

Honestly, I can’t wait to really dig into this town and become a “fixture”. I love that I will seen my current host family often, that I will get a new family and new contacts. I’m happy I’ll be able to travel easily to the capital city and visiting the new friends I’ve made. I know that I will definitely discover some difficulties, but I’m feeling great about this placement already. Optimism abounds!

#PeaceCorps MAK24: It’s all happening now

It’s week seven of PST (Pre-Service Training) and now everything is getting quite serious. Peer teaching is happening this Thursday, and Friday we receive our permanent sites: that is, where we will be for the next two years. Rumours, speculation and wild betting are definitely occurring as we all wait with nervous anticipation. I am definitely quite anxious. We can make some guesses: as I have been learning Albanian along with Macedonian, I will probably be placed somewhere in the western part of the country, possibly either in a majority Albanian or majority Macedonian place, or one that is fifty-fifty like my current training site. Otherwise, I have no clue.

Peer teaching is where two PCT (Peace Corps Trainees) co-teach some classes, whilst the counterpart observes us and gives us feedback. Next week, we will be solo teaching. I’m excited about both things, but as I have never co-taught, I am looking forward to balancing the classroom. The classes that I’ll be co-teaching are all final year students who are preparing for the ending exam called the Matura, and just like any final year of secondary school, they may be more than a little cynical and unwilling to play along. We shall see.

Autumn has FINALLY come upon us, and with it beautiful yellows and oranges. There was a hint of cold weather, but the 20s are still sticking around (20s = ~70 deg Farenheit). With the cold weather came all the wood burning stoves and a rise in air pollution. Living in a valley means that it settles on top of us like a smothering blanket. The rain has chased most of it away. Yesterday, on the 4th of November, our little valley experienced a 2.9 magnitude earthquake. Nothing was damaged: light fixtures shook and the metal blinds rattled. N Macedonia has a history of earthquake activity. Hopefully they all remain small and innocuous.

Small things of note:

  • The pizza here is delicious. When I think of pizza cultures, trust me that I never would have thought of N Macedonia.
  • Many of the grocery stores are run by Macedonians, even in majority Albanian parts of the city. Language switching throughout the day is exhausting, but ultimately rewarding.
  • Most Macedonians that I have observed do not frequent Albanian restaurants or cafés, and Albanians do not frequent Macedonian ones. There being a distinct ethnic divide doesn’t really surprise me as a biracial person, but trying to navigate it with poor-ish language skills and a weak cultural grasp can be frustrating. My host family takes me to Albanian places, but many of the other PCTs have introduced me to Macedonian places. As a small rule of thumb that is not necessarily followed everywhere, Albanian places generally do not serve alcohol, whilst Macedonian ones do.
  • I am learning standard Albanian and dialect Albanian at the same time. The grammar stays the same, but pronunciation can vary wildly. I don’t always remember the standard when I’m speaking in class.