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.
I turned 34 yesterday! I have celebrated birthdays in other countries before, but this one was quite exuberant. There was cake, one of my cohort visited me, and I even got gifts. (Even my mother called me!) I felt incredibly special. Thirty-four is going to be a very interesting year.
Tonight is New Year’s Eve, and I’ve been invited to a concert and other festivities. My usual New Year’s Eve plans are much more low-key than this (there are usually fireworks and watching the ball drop on CNN) so I am feeling quite popular, even though I have the speaking skills of an eight year old. It seems as though people celebrate the coming of the New Year just as most people do: surrounded by friends and family, with loud music and fireworks.
I’ve only been in N Macedonia since September. In that time, I have met countless members of both host families, been to an Albanian wedding, travelled around the western part of the country and started learning two very distinct languages. I still have no idea where this Peace Corps path will lead me, but I know that it will be worthwhile.
(In actual work news: since there was a changing of principals yesterday when I wasn’t at work, there was no school today and I just had twenty minutes of watching how finalising the semester grades worked. Every school setting is a bureaucracy, but it was a very nice surprise not to have to teach lessons today.)
I’ve devised this little game that I play while I’m walking around my city. I give two points to every car that comes from another city in Macedonia (according to its license plate); five points for every car that comes from another Eastern European country and ten points for every Western European country. I don’t always keep score, though I should. The reason I do this is because during PST a car from France was parked in front of the house I was living in. I had never seen one from France, and I excitedly took a picture of the plate. The owner happened to be standing near it and we had a lively conversation in French, confusing the other Volunteer that was with me. Nowadays, most of the cars I see have plates from Serbia, Slovenia and Croatia, with visitors from the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Germany. Because of the movement of Macedonian workers to these countries, it’s not surprising that they buy cars there. They do spend most of their time in these countries, as well. My city is also seemingly wealthier than most, with Mercedes, Porsches and other luxury cars driving around. I say seemingly wealthier because it’s hard to know what people’s incomes are like, or even where they come from.
Politics is a popular topic of conversation everywhere. Ethnic Albanians have a generally very positive view of Americans, because of our interventions in Kosovo. Bill Clinton is still intensely well-liked. I was asked about the current president recently, which is always dicey, because what you say could become the standard line of ‘what Americans think’, especially since you may be the only American the person will meet for a while. I went with “Some people like him, and some people don’t. Most people think he is running the country like a businessman.” We aren’t diplomats in any way, shape or form, but finding diplomatic answers to difficult questions is something that we need to do in the Peace Corps.
Missing “Catholic” (as opposed to Orthodox) Christmas is going to be very difficult. It’s my favourite season, and I’m especially going to miss Christmas crackers, Weißwurst and pretzels with herring salad and a traditional Christmas dinner. I’m going to miss my mum and our cosy Christmas decorations. I will especially miss putting up our crèche, which is as old as I am. It will be hard to do two Christmases without my mum, just as I’m sure she will have a difficult time without me. Working might make it easier, although I’m doing a Christmas presentation on Christmas Day, so I might feel a bit maudlin.
I’m still in observation mode, although students recognise me in the street and servers in restaurants; it’s also become obvious that I go to certain stalls in the пазар because they nearly always have what I want (that is, really nice bananas). I don’t feel incredibly integrated yet, but I’m sure that will take more than the three months that I’ve been here.
We’ve started working in our schools, organisations and daily centres. Back in America, my former co-workers and teachers are counting down to their winter breaks. Here, however, winter break starts at the end of December and goes through January, so my countdown is a little different. On the plus side, I don’t have work on my birthday, continuing the tradition of never having worked/gone to school on my birthday…so far.
Living with a Muslim family means I won’t be celebrating Christmas, either the Catholic one (25 December) or the Orthodox one (7 January). I’m so confused by not celebrating Christmas; it’s the highlight of the year. However, I will be doing a Christmas lesson with my students on the 25th of December, so I will try and bring some Christmas cheer into the classroom. I found an Adventskalendar here in N Macedonia, so I’ve been quietly celebrating my favourite holiday here.
This past week, I observed fourth year classes and helped out a bit with lessons. This coming week, I’ll be heading the lessons, working with my Albanian counterpart teacher. She teaches exclusively fourth year. After the end of the 2019-2020 school year, she’ll start again with first years. Starting in 2020, I’ll also be working with a Macedonian counterpart teacher. It means I’ll have to be okay in both Macedonian and Albanian…easier said than done. These languages are both so different that it’s always a struggle to study one and then the other. I have set up tutoring sessions with both of my tutors. Let’s see if I can also be good about self-studying. Learning a foreign language is difficult, let alone trying to learn two. I think this helps me understand my students, though.
I’ve met tons of new family members. The families that have hosted me happen to be enormous, so meeting cousins and nieces and nephews is sort of exhausting. I went on a mysafir for seven hours on Saturday: from 315 to 1030 PM! It was nice to chat and be surrounded by so much company, but also exhausting. I was successful in bonding with the little ones though, which is always fun. I met a grandfather who had lived in Australia for five years in his twenties, and that was very interesting to hear about. I still have no skill with family situations, but I’m learning. And that’s the most important thing I could say.