#PeaceCorps MAK24: This is My City

This past Friday, we were given our permanent sites. Permanent sites are where PCVs spend the remaining 24 months of their service. And I have been chosen to remain in my training site! Everything I could have asked for, really. It’s big enough with lots of things to see and do, close to nature and with very good transport links to all over N Macedonia. I’ll be working at a school at which I’ve been doing my practicum, with people who I have already met. I’m lucky that my transition won’t be as difficult as some others.

Speaking of practicum, I will be doing solo teaching on Thursday and Friday. I have been busy writing lesson plans that are engaging enough and still fitting with the really important curriculum. It will be interesting to meet Macedonian students and have them doing things in class that they’re probably not used to. It will be a good introduction to students that I will be seeing often.

Honestly, I can’t wait to really dig into this town and become a “fixture”. I love that I will seen my current host family often, that I will get a new family and new contacts. I’m happy I’ll be able to travel easily to the capital city and visiting the new friends I’ve made. I know that I will definitely discover some difficulties, but I’m feeling great about this placement already. Optimism abounds!

#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.

#PeaceCorps MAK24: It is Tradition

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This weekend, I had the privilege of attending a two-day wedding celebration for one of the cousins on the compound. (To wit, I call it a compound because it’s a set of houses surrounding a courtyard, and meals and conversation usually happen either outdoors or in a fully functional kitchen shed. I love it: I’ve never had so much ‘family’ in my life, as the only child of an only child. I just wish I spoke more Albanian.) The ceremonies were two separate affairs: the first was women only except for the very end, and the second was the “banquet” with the bride and groom’s families all attending.

In the first ceremony, the female members of this exceptionally large Albanian family gathered at a banquet hall at a restaurant near the compound. We danced to a live singer who sang what I assume were traditional Albanian songs and he sang very well. I learnt the steps fairly quickly, but dancing for hours in heels was exhausting. However, I had loads of fun. At the end, the groom’s family sang and prayed over the bride, who looked sad and distant. I learnt that looking sad and crying is traditional at the end of this ceremony, where the male members of the bride’s family came to say goodbye to her and sent her off to her new family. There was also a red cape placed over the bride’s shoulders, welcoming her into the new “blood” of the groom’s family. (All this was explained to me by the English speaking younger son of my host mother the next day.)

The second ceremony would not look unfamiliar to an American wedding reception, except for the traditional Albanian dancing. Only the groom’s family is allowed to dance at first, and then the bride’s family. I waited rather impatiently for my chance to show off my moves. There was more dancing, just on a grander scale: this banquet hall was enormous and beautiful, and instead of one singer with a keyboard, there were two singers and a live band including a saxophone. There was also no wedding cake and no toasts (no alcohol either–this family is Muslim). However, there was the beating of forks against the table for some reason.

I was told by someone sitting at my table that the wedding was expensive, but “wrong” because it was not in the traditional wedding season, which is in July or August. Tradition is a very strong and possibly loaded word, but this ceremony felt traditional to me, and the day made sense: Friday was a national holiday and gave everyone a chance to travel for the wedding. Tradition is so many things: the way we dress, what holidays we celebrate (and how we celebrate them), the way we celebrate things like birthdays and weddings. If the wedding is traditional, why should the date matter?

The Peace Corps spends a lot of time and effort helping us integrate into the culture of the places we are sent. There are a few things that I won’t change about who I am and what I do (safety belts, for one, and petting cute animals, for another) but participating whole-heartedly in joyous occasions should be top on the list. Celebrating love is cross-cultural, no matter how one does it.

#PeaceCorps MAK24: To Market, To Market

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photo by Katie D, MAK24

The bazaar is every Tuesday, right next to my house. Last Tuesday I was too ill to go, and this Tuesday we were TOLD to go for homework, to practise the words we had just learned in class. Open air markets are a staple in European nations, popping up in larger (gentrified) cities in the USA. But to go, and be surrounded by commerce and people and exchange, gives another hint to the culture we’ve found ourselves in. I managed to buy Granny Smith apples and a cup full of raspberries to share with another trainee.

One of the things I was quite frightened about was not having a support system. I’m not known for making friends, and as an only child I don’t even have that built in system of siblings that you may or may not like. Luckily, my language class consists of three other people who are all fantastic and amazing women with interesting lives and insights, and I love spending time with each of them. I’ve also made friends with people who are in other villages, and meeting up with them on “hub/technical days” is quite uplifting.

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On Hub/Technical days: once a week, all of us MAK24 trainees come to the capital of N Macedonia, Skopje, to be trained as a group on how we’re supposed to accomplish our tasks here whilst Peace Corps Volunteers. Skopje is a capital city, but what type it’s trying to be, I don’t know. Is it trying to wear the clothes of Berlin and Paris, or stay close to its Eastern siblings like Kyiv and Tirana? Порта Македонија (Skopje’s “Arc de Triomphe”) tells one story, but the city itself tells a different one. I only spent an hour and a half exploring it, so I really have no answers and no opinions.

Other observations: the stray dog and cat population is thrice what I would have even imagined. There is no shelter system in Macedonia: some dogs are tagged, some aren’t. The tagged ones have been spayed/neutered and immunised, but there’s no telling when. We trainees have befriended dogs, because of course we have. There are wild cats that enjoy visiting my courtyard, skulking around the wood piles, and they are all very cute. I pet a cat on a walk, scandalising my Albanian-Macedonian companion. I made sure she saw me washing my hands.

This week is packed full. I have been invited to a wedding, and so a wedding shower on Wednesday, and a wedding at the weekend. Our hub day is Thursday, as Friday is the Day of the Macedonian Uprising (against fascism). The wedding is either Friday or Saturday. I hope I’m ready. I know I’ll mostly be in silent observation mode, seeing as my Albanian is very, very minimal. Watching the dubbed Turkish soaps and then the news is quite helpful, actually, but I am impatient to speak it. I feel as if we’re all impatient, honestly, to grow, to progress, to integrate. има време, as the Macedonians say. There is time.

#PeaceCorps MAK24: PST, start!

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Sometimes, when walking around my PST (Pre-Service Training) city, I feel like I’m in any European city. But then I hear the adhan (call to prayer for Muslims) and realise that there is something very different to this place. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but the sheer mix of ethnicity and culture is astounding. Western N Macedonia is heavily Albanian, and the city I find myself in has representation from all ethnicities. To best illustrate this, another PCT (Peace Corps Trainee) and I went to lunch together, and the menu was Albanian (until we got an English one). Our server was Macedonian, and they served Turkish coffee and tea to Turkish music. (Speaking of Turkish tea, it was a balm to my tea-loving soul–I have unluckily chosen another country that thrives on coffee.)

My host family is Albanian. When I say host family, I really mean host mother, as both her husband and her son are working in Germany. We live in what I would truly call a compound, houses surrounding a courtyard where we take most of our meals. She only speaks Albanian, which puts me on a bit of a back foot as I speak none of it. But I’m pretty sure I will catch on quickly and for now, charades and pointing get things done. However, my host mum does know two German words: spazieren (which means to go for a walk/a stroll) and essen (which means food). So at least I know when to eat and when to stroll about the city.

Part of a total immersion into a new and completely different culture is the ability to sit back and just let it wash over you. There are things that happen that I legitimately don’t understand, and can only describe. My host mum usually cooks dinner on a camp stove, but has two refrigerators (one for upstairs in what I call the “show kitchen” and one for downstairs in the “work kitchen”). Do I know why? No. We were warned in Orientation that we may have to negotiate for shower time because of the boiler situation (electricity is very expensive compared to the salaries); I can take showers whenever I please. My observation about having to put toilet paper in the bin in only true in my classroom now. I have a big bed and a television, and a desk at which to do my homework.

If you have ever seen Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story”, you are probably thinking that my experience does not line up with what you may have heard about Peace Corps. I can hear you thinking You have running water and electricity! You have WiFi and I see BMWs in that picture up there! But it is not without hardship–the poverty of my city is palpable. There are casinos everywhere, false hope for a desperate people. A third of the population of the city is abroad, having given up this country for a bad job. You hear the scorn in young peoples’ voices when talking about it, and the wish to go anywhere else is strong: Germany, Switzerland, Italy. America is the holy grail, but one word stops a dream: ‘Visa’. A part of my job in the Peace Corps is to show host country nationals (HCNs) the beauty and worth of their own country. I hope they are infected by my enthusiasm.

NB: Sorry for all the initialisms/abbreviations. Like any federal government programme, Peace Corps is full of them. There are a few things I have to keep private (my exact location, for example), but I will never keep these secret from you.