The evacuation of 7367 Peace Corps Volunteers happened very quickly. Stand fast, consolidation, then we were all sent to our Homes of Record. We could say goodbye, kind of, and in Macedonia it meant we were all brought to a beautiful hotel in the capital to wait for a flight that was increasingly unlikely. We were finally put on one of the last flights out of Skopje airport and now we are all at home, bewildered by the whiplash of suddenly being in the United States again.
The days leading up to stand fast were so beautiful and warm. It was a very fitting but terrible goodbye. I have left behind friends, students, counterparts and family in a beautiful country. Two years of my life were mapped out, and now I have to start at the bottom again. This is where so many of us are; some Peace Corps volunteers were just starting out after university, others left careers to go abroad and add to the pool of knowledge there.
All of us from N Macedonia are in some home; we are in self-quarantine, which means different things to different people. But for now, it means that I am at home with my mother, still reeling from being torn away from what would have been my home for two years. I will miss my city and everyone who treated me with such kindness whilst I was there.
I did not want to end my blog this way. There were so many observations I wanted to make, and so many stories I wanted to share. Please think of me and the other volunteers as we navigate the future, especially in these strange times. I know we are not alone in trying to establish a new normal. Whatever happens, I hope we can return to N Macedonia or at least continue our service in some other way.
Most people don’t know much about the Peace Corps. If they do, it’s because a family member did it or they played around with the idea a few times. A woman I met back in America said “That’s my generation!” (And she was right–the 1960s did open the world up to Peace Corps Volunteers.) When I called to cancel my local NPR subscription, the woman was so kind and excited for me–another generational thing.
Most people, when you tell them that you’re going to the Peace Corps, assume that you’re going to Africa or Asia. And a majority of Peace Corps Volunteers do end up in those parts of the world. When you tell someone that you’re going to Eastern Europe, however, a few things happen. They may ask, “Why is the Peace Corps in Europe?” Or they might say “I didn’t think the Peace Corps needed to go to Europe.”
And maybe they have a point. Europe, the continent, is very well developed…for quite a few reasons. However, the end of Yugoslavia along with quite a few other factors means some Eastern European countries are still developing. And Peace Corps will go where it is invited. The governments of these countries obviously believed that volunteers would do good work here. And of course we have. Our “hardships” might look different, and the people we serve may not seem like they need our help, but obviously the Peace Corps organisation believes that the skills that we as volunteers bring are worthwhile.
That being said, Peace Corps in N Macedonia is very different than say…Peace Corps in Benin. The infrastructure is better: electricity and running water work as expected 99.9% of the time. Transportation is better; a journey to the capital of Benin (Porto-Novo) takes three days for some volunteers, versus maybe an hour and a half at most for me to Skopje. Life is very different for us here in N Macedonia, and sometimes I wonder if I’m really “doing” Peace Corps. Our struggles may be more spiritual or mental than physical. However, every volunteer’s service is worthy. We’ve chosen to spend two years away from the comfort of family and friends, to do a difficult and sometimes nebulous job.
I think “Posh Corps” is sometimes seen as a friendly jibe, a bit of a joke amongst volunteers. Sometimes, though, it denigrates the work that volunteers do in those countries, N Macedonia included. I’ve used it in a self-deprecating manner, so I’m not too bothered by it. I’m still am, and always will be, a Peace Corps volunteer.
Today is market day, and it’s a very warm 19 deg C. I didn’t want to take some artistic shot that leaves out all the mess of my city, but the sun sort of hides everything and makes everything cleaner. But, some shots from today. Please enjoy.
I’ve been thinking about how much I enjoy living in N Macedonia. Teaching is hard work; it always has been. But I like my students here, and I like my counterparts. I also like all the other teachers in the school where I am, so going to work is actually fun. I have to stay current and fresh in both languages. Sometimes I’m jealous of those people who are purely in Macedonian, or the people who only have to speak Albanian with some forays into Macedonian. But I’ve gotten to know both my students better, and it makes me happy that I can do both. My Macedonian will always struggle, because I live with an Albanian family, but as long as I understand things and can sometimes follow along in a conversation, I’m ahead of the game.
Feminine solidarity: women here walk arm-in-arm, sit close in restaurants and help each other look their best. I know this is mostly because of the strict gender separation until marriage, but there isn’t a lot of back-biting and competition among women. It’s inspiring.
The Albanian men, starting quite young, have no issue giving a two kisses on each cheek greeting to other men. It’s quite nice, honestly.
When you find a place to have Turkish tea and a nice pastry for 40 den (70 cents), it’s like Heaven has opened up. There’s this one bun with this sharp, cheddar like cheese on top, and today I had a pasty stuffed with jam (probably cherry) and covered in powdered sugar. Divine.
I know everyone says that the people in their country are the kindest people they have ever met, but I really mean it here. A group of students came to say hello during a break (strangers to me–I don’t work with their English teacher) and asked if they could stay and have a chat. Of course! They told me later they had been afraid of bothering me, but I told them to bother me any time.
When I first came here, watching people take selfies on a normal day out, or at home, was pretty weird to me. I mean, I know people take selfies, but it had never been part of my regular going out habits. I still don’t know how many photos I’ve ended up in, but now I see it as charming and not odd.
I know that there will be frustrating days, and days where I question my decision to join the Peace Corps. But sometimes, on beautiful market days, with strange and happy experiences, you start to understand why you’re here and why it’s important to have these small interactions with people.
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.
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.)