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.
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.
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.
It’s hard to believe that it’s winter. We have had cold days and foggy days and rainy days. But most days have been sunny and just cool. Sometimes I get too warm in my winter coat. I’m sure that other parts of the country have seen the harsh winter we were warned about, but in my corner there’s none of that.
There’s something to be said about expectations. What should a person expect when joining the Peace Corps? The daily struggle of language learning? Teaching in cold classrooms with little materials? Unmotivated students? The beauty of their surroundings? The amazing patience and kindness of host country nationals? Surprisingly comfortable lodgings and good food? No matter how much you prepare and research and develop plans, something will always be surprising.
Vodici is a Macedonian Orthodox holiday celebrating the baptism of Jesus. Men race in a body of water to capture a decorated cross. The man who catches it has good luck throughout the year. The men pictured raced in the Vardar river which runs through my town. I can’t imagine how cold the water was. It was a very joyous experience, with the crowds cheering them on (me included). I got a pretty good spot this year to watch them. There is a much bigger one in Ohrid, but I enjoyed this one. These traditions connect people to their past so well. I love taking part in them, even marginally.
After three weeks of holiday, today was the first day back at work. I only had one class. This has never happened to me before, where I had no students in class. So whilst I was at work, I didn’t do much. But I did spend time with both of my counterparts, so I call it a win for integration purposes.
Winter is acting strangely. There was snow, but today the sun is out but the air is freezing cold and reddening up faces and drying out skin. The snow has very quickly gone away, but there are still spots of crunchy, frozen whiteness around town. The ski resorts here in N Macedonia are all probably pretty empty. When I was researching to come to N Macedonia, I was warned that November to March would be harsh and unforgiving. It sadly hasn’t borne out here in my city.
As I work with fourth years, this second semester will be very interesting: full of exams, plenty of missing days, trips and basically finishing out their school time. There’s so much in store for my students: many will probably leave N Macedonia for other European countries. Perhaps there may come a time when they stay to create a better world here, but the cynicism is palpable. I don’t know if I’m capable of changing minds, honestly. All I can do is help them better their skills in a necessary language.
One of the most important things in the Peace Corps is integration in your community. Seeing as I never felt fully integrated in the United States (for various reasons) it’s quite a stretch for me to come to an Eastern European country that I don’t know anything about and become indistinguishable from the host country nationals here. But I do have some observations about what does work.
Copy what the HCNs are doing, up to what you’re comfortable with. On my first day with my host family, I stood up and greeted people with a kiss on each cheek because I had seen other family members do it. (It’s only one kiss for Macedonians, I think, and unless it’s family, you don’t do this with the opposite sex.)
Learn the language as quickly as possible. This sort of goes with the first bullet point. Listen to what people say during everyday encounters and repeat them, even if you don’t know what they mean at first. This also helps you learn what words people usually use and how they’re pronounced.
Go everywhere with your host family when feasible. You’ll get more language practice and also be seen as a member of the community. You’ll also get an instant set of friends who will recognise you when shopping, and you’ll feel more included.
I can say that my host family during training was so helpful in this integration process because they didn’t change anything to accommodate me. I was a bit spoilt honestly but I ate what the family ate, shopped where they shopped and lived how they lived. It made moving to another family much easier because I had the rhythms down. (Another helpful thing was that my host family during training didn’t speak a lot of English, which helped me with my Albanian). You’ll always feel a bit awkward and a bit out of place, but it gets easier everyday.
This weekend I went to visit a fellow volunteer at her site in Bitola. It is a much bigger city than mine, and more than that, it is solidly Macedonian, even though it’s not very far from Greece. It was decked out for Christmas (which is celebrated on the 7th of January, as this is an Orthodox country) and I only heard Macedonian. I am still studying both, but my Albanian is stronger by a mile. I really enjoyed my time there. I stayed in my training city, which is a blessing in many ways: there’s no new readjustment period and I know my way around pretty well. On the other hand getting to know a new place might have been interesting. Also, I’m the only volunteer in my city proper (there’s one about 40 minutes away) so it does get lonely sometimes.
I also visited Tetovo to meet with my Albanian tutor. As the holidays stretch out before me (work does not begin until the 21st of January) I know I will have to fill my days with things to do. Breaks were much shorter and busier in America, so having more time to myself is much nicer but challenging. I am hoping for more winter weather and the opportunity to travel with my extended host family.
I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions because I feel guilty about not keeping up with them, but obviously there are goals in mind. I hope to become better in Albanian (and try to improve my Macedonian); I want to set up new programmes and clubs at the school where I work; I would like to do some travelling around the Balkans and southern Europe. I’m also thinking about the future (it’s so far, I know) but I’ve already started researching PhD programmes and future work possibilities. I don’t like blank spots, I guess you could say.