#PeaceCorps MAK24: On Celebrations Abroad

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.)

#PeaceCorps MAK24: Constant Observation

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.

#PeaceCorps MAK24: A Different Sort of Holiday Season

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.

#PeaceCorps MAK24: It’s Official!

On the 6th of December, the 24th group of Peace Corps Trainees became volunteers officially. The ceremony was very, very official, and we were all beautifully done up, and our host families were there. It was all quite overwhelming, especially the official pledge. Pro-tip for anyone reciting a pledge: please break it up into more manageable bits for us. Coming back to the training site was a little bit sad: first, the other volunteers were leaving, and I would be by all myself. Also, leaving my host mum hurt a lot. She’s leaving for Germany for three months, but the other compound members will be there for me to visit, which I appreciate.

My host family that I mentioned in a previous entry was changed by Peace Corps, so I’m with another family. It is another Albanian family; my city is majority Albanian. I love it here so much. It’s such a warm, inviting place that once again has all sorts of quirks like an entire working kitchen that is never used and random empty rooms. It’s next to a mosque so the adhan (call to prayer) is very loud but I don’t really mind. They also have an alarm system that I did accidentally trip this morning because I forgot to turn it off. There are obviously things that I have to get used to in the house.

There are three weeks of work before the official end of the semester, and then I have a very long winter break, wherein I will have to definitely continue my language studying. Having two different counterparts, one Albanian and one Macedonian, means that I will have to stay pretty equally good in both languages, and I need to concentrate on Macedonian especially. My plan is to finish the trainee handbook and then spring off from there.

There’s not much winter going on here; it’s cold, but not cold enough. Mostly it’s just chilly and dreary, with grey skies and drizzly, annoying rain. I can’t wait until January, when apparently the real winter comes and snow will be a frequent thing, according to my host family. Winter is absolutely my favourite season. I’ve never really thought about why, but I enjoy the cold and the crispness of the air and cosy blankets.

#PeaceCorps MAK24: Vertigo

Winter has arrived in N Macedonia. There is slushy rain. Soon, I’m sure the snow will stick. Also, I have been re-diagnosed with benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, which means I have had to have multiple tests run to rule out other things. This is sort of a scary situation, as it doesn’t really have a cure. However, it tends to fade away after a while, so perhaps there’s nothing really to do but wait and see how it settles. (Also, having an MRI and EKG, along with other medical procedures done in a foreign country is always a little nerve-wracking. But every professional I came into contact with was amazing.)

This Friday is our swearing-in ceremony and Saturday we all move to our sites. Since I’m staying in my training site, I feel like I will be losing friends that I have made over these three months. I’m sure there will be a period of adjustment for all of us as we meet new families, learn new routines, and basically settle into our two years here in N Macedonia.

One of the things that I’m learning here is that ethnicity and national pride are sometimes very separate things. My training site, the dual language community, is stable and the friction amongst ethnicities is fairly low. This has not always been the case, but there have been moves in government as well as in other places to bring these ethnicities together. My school is Macedonian, Albanian and Turkish. I don’t know how well the population of students mix. I’m excited to learn.

#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: 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.

#PeaceCorps MAK24: Be our Guest

What happens when you are a guest in someone’s home? What do they do for you? What are YOU expected to do? These are questions that one usually gives little thought to. Here in N Macedonia, there is a ritual to having guests over. In Macedonian, it’s На гости, and in Albanian it’s mysafiri. There are two different connotations to these words, but the concept is the same: you are visiting someone’s house, and you are their guest. In Macedonian, it’s to be a guest, and in Albanian, it’s to be somewhere else (assuming that you’ll be a guest there).

I have been guesting in quite a few households, both Macedonian and Albanian, since I’ve been here. The rituals are obviously different, but the feeling is the same: you must be taken care of as a guest. I visited a fellow trainee’s flat, where she lives with a busy Macedonian family. As soon as I arrived, I was given something to drink and then piles of snacks came to the table: grapes and apples, nuts and sweets. The table was pushed closer so we didn’t have to reach far. If we didn’t eat a lot, we were fussed over. I admit, I will eat all the cashews you put in front of me.

In the Albanian families, there is a set ritual, it seems. First, the tiny cups of very strong Turkish style coffee (I skip this step). Then the snacks come out. There are salty and savoury snacks, and you must eat at least a couple. The cold drinks usually come out at this step as well. There are multiple plates of the same types of snacks so nobody has to reach over anyone else. There is always soda, along with juice and water. There is also then the Turkish tea step. Turkish (or Russian) tea is brewed in a double broiler teapot: boiling water on bottom and the tea on top. The tea is brewed very strongly and then poured into a small glass that has sugar at the bottom; the boiling water is poured in to dilute it. Trust me, it needs to be diluted.

photo by downtownblabby

Honestly, this step is my favourite because there’s a thin slice of chocolate cake that follows. I don’t usually like chocolate cake, but this is more like a mousse. I have had it multiple times.

Of course, I, not being from this culture, usually make some gaffes. I help clear cups or try and help being coffee in, especially if, as happened recently, we are having guests where I’m living. But of course, being a guest is a very special thing. It’s the bonding that is the most important thing in a На гости or a mysafiri. It’s best to just be the guest, and enjoy the company. You’ll be there for a while, anyway.

#PeaceCorps MAK24: It’s Getting Serious

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We’re starting on our fifth week here in North Macedonia. We were given a competency checklist with all the things we should have learnt up until this point. Learning two languages at once (Macedonian and Albanian) means we have some weaknesses and strengths in both languages. Everything is starting to click, slowly. I wish I were faster at producing full sentences, and amusingly, I have picked up a few dialect/accent issues where what I’ve learned is different from the official language, especially in Albanian.

Along with language classes, we are doing our first observations this week. I’ll be observing an English teacher (obviously) in the high school behind the school I’ve been in for my Macedonian/Albanian lessons. I met him and the vice principal today. I can’t wait to see inside a classroom and learn how everything works. One of the other trainees here in the city is with me in the same school. Next week, it’s to our orientation city for an observation of an actual PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) and what she does in the classroom. Then there is peer teaching and then solo teaching. Everything is rolling very quickly towards our actual service. I’m not nervous about that, but I am nervous about having to choose a language later for my LPI test (Language Proficiency Index).

Otherwise, everything is clipping along. I am enjoying the city I’m living in, I’m enjoying classes, and I’m enjoying our trips to the capital. It’s warmer than usual for late October (and I mean much warmer; I’m still wearing my summer dresses everyday) but soon it will be cool enough for autumn and winter clothing. I am hoping for snow, honestly. But for now, the weather is nice enough and not boiling hot.

A tiny bit of trivia about the city I’m living in: it has a reputation of being a friendly place with very fashionable men. I can definitely attest to the former; even as a foreigner I have always been treated kindly (even at the salon when I had my wedding hair done by a woman who had never done Black hair before). Now, of the second? Most men look fine. I’m not really one to judge men’s fashion. But most men here wear jeans that fit well and emulate Southern European styling.