#PeaceCorps MAK24: A Macedonian Love Letter

Today is market day, and it’s a very warm 19 deg C. I didn’t want to take some artistic shot that leaves out all the mess of my city, but the sun sort of hides everything and makes everything cleaner. But, some shots from today. Please enjoy.

I’ve been thinking about how much I enjoy living in N Macedonia. Teaching is hard work; it always has been. But I like my students here, and I like my counterparts. I also like all the other teachers in the school where I am, so going to work is actually fun. I have to stay current and fresh in both languages. Sometimes I’m jealous of those people who are purely in Macedonian, or the people who only have to speak Albanian with some forays into Macedonian. But I’ve gotten to know both my students better, and it makes me happy that I can do both. My Macedonian will always struggle, because I live with an Albanian family, but as long as I understand things and can sometimes follow along in a conversation, I’m ahead of the game.

Further observations

  • Feminine solidarity: women here walk arm-in-arm, sit close in restaurants and help each other look their best. I know this is mostly because of the strict gender separation until marriage, but there isn’t a lot of back-biting and competition among women. It’s inspiring.
  • The Albanian men, starting quite young, have no issue giving a two kisses on each cheek greeting to other men. It’s quite nice, honestly.
  • When you find a place to have Turkish tea and a nice pastry for 40 den (70 cents), it’s like Heaven has opened up. There’s this one bun with this sharp, cheddar like cheese on top, and today I had a pasty stuffed with jam (probably cherry) and covered in powdered sugar. Divine.
  • I know everyone says that the people in their country are the kindest people they have ever met, but I really mean it here. A group of students came to say hello during a break (strangers to me–I don’t work with their English teacher) and asked if they could stay and have a chat. Of course! They told me later they had been afraid of bothering me, but I told them to bother me any time.
  • When I first came here, watching people take selfies on a normal day out, or at home, was pretty weird to me. I mean, I know people take selfies, but it had never been part of my regular going out habits. I still don’t know how many photos I’ve ended up in, but now I see it as charming and not odd.

I know that there will be frustrating days, and days where I question my decision to join the Peace Corps. But sometimes, on beautiful market days, with strange and happy experiences, you start to understand why you’re here and why it’s important to have these small interactions with people.

#PeaceCorps MAK24: From Someone Else’s Eyes

I had a friend come to visit me from another country this past weekend. They had never been to the Balkans, and some things that I have just come to accept were a shock to them. Cars parked on side-walks, the prevalence of cash over card, the eclectic architectural styles. I am a Westerner too, but even just living here and being used to the way of life always sort of startles me. It’s odd what you get used to when there’s not really any alternatives.

There is a routine here that I quite enjoy. Routine sounds boring and tedious, but it actually helps me be comfortable. I love that Tuesdays are market days, and that most Albanian families settle to watch the same soap operas on ALSAT M, and I clearly love holiday traditions all over the world. (I am excited to see how Eid al-Fitr [Bajrami i Madh] is celebrated here.) I have also created my own routines to help me at work and with my language studies.

And now, I have something a little bit serious and perhaps political (but only for Americans). It has been 13-18 degrees Celsius (55-64 Fahrenheit) here in January and February. We have had three days of snow all winter. This is an atypical winter, and apparently Europe has seen the hottest Januaries and Februaries for the past four years, with this year going to top the previous ones. Climate change is real, and it is destroying seasons. It is destroying tourist areas in N Macedonia: there has not been enough snow for skiing and snowboarding. It is confusing plants and wildlife, and making planting, harvesting and blooming seasons shorter. Food fluctuates wildly in price because of this, making it hard to budget. Human activity is causing the bulk of this situation, but not every human is to blame. The biggest polluters are companies not located in N Macedonia, but using N Macedonia and other places as their dumping grounds. Just 100 countries are responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions. Our small steps are not going to change anything. We need to demand change from our complacent politicians.

#PeaceCorps MAK24 Ta hash buke?

Food is one of the most outward facing parts of a country’s culture. It tells you about their agriculture, what they consider sacred or important and even how families are set up. Here in N Macedonia, pretty much everything revolves around food and enjoying food with friends and family.

You can find pretty much everything here. Most Albanian families, however, don’t eat pork. But you can find it in grocery stores. Vegetables are usually in season, but just like everywhere, those plastic tomatoes show up at grocery stores in February. (The tomatoes in season here are a gift from Allah, though. Just trust me on that.)

Cooking is usually done on gas stoves or outdoor cooking stoves that use firewood. On chilly autumn evenings those outdoor cooking stoves are a perfect place to settle and have some Turkish coffee or tea. In many Albanian houses that I have visited, there is a full kitchen that is never touched, with an electric stove, a dishwasher and an oven. The only thing used is the refrigerator.

My favourite food is petulla (pronounced petla). It’s a flat fried dough sometimes stuffed with meat and cheese. I have never had the sweet version but I’ve had it often with Turkish tea. It was one of the first things I ate with my first family, outside in their giant courtyard.

The cheese here is very close to feta, which isn’t my favourite. The favourite hard cheese in my current host family is Edam, which I have always liked. I eat less dairy here than I did in America though.

You always miss the food from “back home” but you can find pizza, chicken fingers and hamburgers here. Skopje has Mexican and Asian food, but the other volunteers have said it’s quite expensive. I’m very lucky to be serving in a country with everything I need, even though it may be presented to me in a different way.

#PeaceCorps MAK24: How do you know it’s working?

As a profession, teaching is one of the more mysterious ones out there. Everyone has had teachers. Everyone sort of understands what a teacher does. Everyone has teachers they didn’t like, and teachers they remember twenty years later. But what makes a teacher special? Is it their expertise, their experience? Their willingness to work with sometimes intractable students and miserably low pay? How do you know if a student has learnt anything?

Around the world, ministries and departements of education have tried to quantify learning. Tests and data abound. Every few years curricula change and standards are renewed or tossed whole cloth. And teachers must completely change how they teach once more. And students have to change how they learn. Sometimes it’s very frustrating not being able to build a plan that suits every need. Micro-management is a problem everywhere.

I am by no means an expert. I have teaching experience, and I know that there have been some students who liked what I did. Here in N Macedonia all I hope is that I bring a real life connection to an escoteric subject that is so very necessary in the world today. Peace Corps has always sent native English speakers around the world to bring real life experiences to their students. I know I’m part of the process. Language learning is still a mysterious science. We understand why some people learn language faster than others, but there’s no way to tell who will be a polyglot and who will struggle.