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.
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.
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.
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.
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.