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.
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.
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.
If I had to use one word to describe these past 72 hours, I would use “overwhelmed”. There is no describing the intensity of 56 people trying to get through security at JFK and onto a plane filled with confused non Peace Corps people. Nothing will describe the bleary morning arrival of those same people to the N Macedonian airport (aerodrom). Nothing will describe the first meal, the first heavy rain, the first nervous classes. We have already made friends and learnt so much about ourselves.
As it’s only been about three days since my arrival in N Macedonia, I can only talk about my first impressions. We are in the west, and the mountains here are breath-taking. We counted minarets on the way from the airport to our orientation site, and marvelled at the strangely empty detached houses along the way, musing on why they looked so new and yet were so empty. There were men selling grapes fresh from the vineyards in boxes along the motorway, and piles of rubbish were on fire as we passed.
So far, we have seen one street of our orientation site city, and I have been twice to go for tiny shops in the grocery store. We have been visited by two cats and a very loyal and dirty white dog who was baptised newly as Mochi by some trainees. I have never visited the Balkans, so the buildings feel familiar but strange at the same time.
Other observations: Remembering to throw toilet paper into the bin is tricky but I think I have perfected it. The Cyrillic alphabet is not difficult but I am struggling with it. I’m not struggling with speaking though, if I may brag. I am slightly confused on how phone service works here, even though I have a new N Macedonian number. I have only had black tea with milk once since I’ve been here, and I am missing it badly. I think I have already lost my sunglasses, which is a shame.
I am always surprised about the mundane nature of our first observations, but then I suppose we are trying to cling to some normalcy and will doing anything to keep our mind clear. Everything is different, but nothing really is, honestly. We still have to sleep and eat and learn, just in a different country. I think everything will be fine.