Parents’ Perspective: Mom and Dad’s visit to Macedonia

In January, Tony and I visited Kelly in Macedonia for about ten days. We hoped to meet the people most important to her: fellow Peace Corp volunteers, Peace Corp staff, her host families, her community friends, and her teacher counterparts. And we did. In the process, we also ended up getting a better understanding of some of the challenges and difficulties she faced.

Macedonia is a small, mountainous country. Kelly told us a joke that Macedonians and Albanians enjoy: Macedonians bombed LA. And they got no response from the US. They tried again, this time bombing NYC. No response. Frustrated, they bombed DC. And still the US ignored them! Finally, Macedonia called the President. “What’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you responding to our bombs?” The President replied, “We would have retaliated but we couldn’t figure out where Macedonia was.”

In case you don’t know, Macedonia is north of Greece, east of Albania, and west of Bulgaria. It’s a part of what used to be called Yugoslavia. The people of the Balkans have an affinity for Chili peppers that rivals New Mexico. They make a sort of salsa from the peppers called ajvar. I love ajvar!

The two largest populations in the country are the Macedonian (Slavic)-speaking Christian majority, and the Albanian-speaking Moslem minority. There are two languages, two cultures, two alphabets, and two religions. Macedonia is seeking to join the EU, hence the presence of the Peace Corps. Kelly works in the Albanian region, teaching English teachers to be better English teachers.

When we arrived in Tetovo (the city adjacent to Kelly’s village) by bus, we had to heave our suitcases over a four-foot wall of snow. Every curb, every street corner, every sidewalk was icy-dangerous. Here are some pictures of Tetovo. Beautiful mountains, no?

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The country was cold, about 0 degrees F at night. Central heating was a rarity. Despite sleeping in a hat, long underwear and a scarf, many tears were shed. By me.

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Notice how the Peace Corp volunteers have lunch with their coats on.

We did a lot of walking, so we were never cold during the day. However, the snow did create conflict between parental units and the child. Tony and I, referred to as ‘senior citizens’ in some circles, always lagged behind Kelly, as we picked our way through the ice. Kelly was unhappy with our speed. We were wrecking her schedule because we took twice as long to get anywhere (our goal was always “right by that tree”). Finally I told her that we could have gone to Fiji instead. Kelly then cut us some slack. ☺

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We spent most of our time in the Albanian regions. I learned about five words in Albanian. One of them was “katastrof.” It means catastrophe. The fact that I know this word suggests an overarching pessimism by Albanian-speakers. Many folks feel they are mistreated by the Macedonian majority. The unemployment rate is certainly high. Men linger all day at men-only coffee shops, smoking and, presumably, talking about their miseries. Some families find employment abroad, working in Turkey or Western Europe. Many houses in Kelly’s village stand empty most of the year, because their owners are abroad. Kelly’s Albanian-speaking younger-generation friends are planning a different future. They are studying to be MDs and dentists, architects and lawyers.

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Tetovo is an exotic city: Hearing the call to prayer from mosques, shopping at the “Pazar” (open air market), window shopping for gold wedding necklaces, and listening to Albanian music in taxis and kombis. Even the pop music has a distinct Middle Eastern flavor.

Here’s a youtube link to one of Kelly’s favorite Albanian music videos. I love it too!

Kratovo was one of my favorite towns. Jake, Kelly’s boyfriend, also a PCV, lives and works in Kratovo. This ancient, cobble-stoned, Macedonian-speaking village is nestled inside the crater of an old volcano! (Hence the name Kratovo)

(Two pictures of Kratovo)

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Kratovo. Notice the smoke from wood fires for heating, juxtaposed against satellite dishes.

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Kelly, Jake and the parental units discovering a cave suitable for hibernation!

Kratovo is famous for Pastramijka, an oval-shaped pizza with bacon and ham on it. Jake took us out to sample this traditional winter dish. The owner of the restaurant also offered us homemade wine, but we declined. Near the end of dinner, the owner poured us a lovely rose drink. What a generous gesture to give us wine on the house! We clinked our glasses together, and said cheers. And we drank. And we gagged. This was no wine. This was cabbage juice!

Jake, always the good sport, actually finished his juice. What happened to the other three half-full glasses? Let’s just say somebody snuck to the back door of the restaurant, and dumped the cabbage juice into the bottom of an old volcano.

A New Way of Life

Last week I moved to the city near my village. I can’t go into details why this happened, but my life has been changing pretty dramatically. Now, I find myself in a upper floor of a house with my own kitchen, bathroom, and room. The area is wonderfully spacious and I have complete control over my diet.

I will hopefully run in the Skopje Half-Marathon in May so I have been trying to get back into shape. I have been waking up early and going on 10 km runs to get myself pumped about running again. The teachers at my elementary school in my village are on strike right now so I find myself with a lot more time than I did this past semester. My days have been filled with running, working out in my room, baking, cooking, and enjoying life in a city.

This morning I have a large glass of homemade orange juice and listening to the call to prayer. The silence in this floor was an adjustment. I have never lived on my own and my outgoing personality is trying to adjust to this so much me time. I have been discovering the joy of reading once again and also just people watching and sipping a cup of warm tea. I feel more relaxed and stress-free than I have in all of my service.

The past month has been a world-wind of events from Christmas to New Years in Vienna to having my parents come visit me in Macedonia to moving. I was able to spend Christmas weekend with Jake and savor the glorious company of a best friend. Then I traveled to Vienna, Austria and celebrated New Years. I rang in the New Year by Waltzing for the first time with thousands of people surrounding me. Sadly that night my wallet was stolen from me, which had a lot of cash in it. After I got over that accident, I enjoyed Vienna with the Christmas Markets, flea markets, sacher tortes (chocolate apricot cake), brats, and delicious Mexican (yesssssss I got Mexican in Vienna, sometimes you get desperate and need real chips and salsa).

My parents met me in Vienna. Seeing their smiling and exhausted faces at the Vienna airport made me gloriously happy. It was amazing to be reunited with my parents. I couldn’t believe it had been a year and five months. I was so in shock to see them that I couldn’t express tears of joy. After a whirlwind of a couple days in Vienna I held their hands (metaphorically, though there was handholding happening throughout their visit) and showed them Macedonia for a whirlwind of 10 days. I was able to show them my two villages, my two schools, my big city, the capital, lake matka (a wonderous lake), kratovo (where Jake lives and the legendary pastramika is devoured), rromanli (my PST (Pre-Service Training) host family), and all my counterparts and host families.

I got a gift I never thought would be possible. I got to see the world, I have lived in now for a year and five months, through the eyes of my parents. This gift I will always appreciate the rest of my life. There are so many things to say about my parents’ trip. The power of controlling the travel plan (I forgot that I wasn’t traveling solo anymore) and the pure curiosity of what my parents thought of absolutely everything. It took me half the visit to adjust to traveling with my parents. The previous summer I had the amazing Sheryl Burt visit me, and she road on as I plowed through Macedonia and Greece. Thank you mom and dad for visiting me. It meant the world to me. I don’t think I would be happy and healthy right at this moment if you weren’t there by my side for those 10 days. You gave me the strength I needed.

I may be an adult now, but I am very dependent on my parents’ emotional support (and some financial boost…we won’t go into those details though). Dropping my parents off at the shuttle to the airport their final day in the country I found myself completely speechless with amazement. My parents were leaving me as soon as they came. I felt completely alone in this world. The urge to cry overcame me and I walked away knowing that my Peace Corps life will continue without my parents with me physically.

The next weekend my parents and I doing our weekly skype date I find myself eternally grateful that they understand my experience to a level where I really do feel like they get it. I love when my mom corrects me and says, “We understand a small amount of what you have endured.” And that small amount means the world to me. Advice: If you are ever in the Peace Corps, have your parents come visit.

As I finish this tall glass of orange juice, I think I am going to take a stroll through the falling snow. The next four months are the most important in my service because these are the months I will be implementing my SPA project, working with my teachers on unit lesson planning, and try to make the most out of my last full semester of school.

Courage

Everyone knows that the Peace Corps is never an easy slice of pie. Now, I have consumed several slices of pie during my year and three months of service. Something I thought would become easier over my service was all the stares. I thought I would get used to people starring at me when I went for a run or when I went for a bike ride. I came to terms with this struggle today. No matter how long I live in Macedonia, the stares, the shock, and the confusion from a female publicly exercising will never get easier. Today I went on a bike ride to my best friend’s house. She is really my second family in this country. Her mother, sister, and every other single relative has been warm and friendly. They accept me for who I am and nothing more. When I go to her house I truly feel like I can drop my guard down and be myself. I have found myself many times waking up from a four our nap on their couch. They relax me in a way that I cannot seem to find anywhere else in the this Albanian culture.

On the journey to and from her house I rode my bicycle. I endured mean, curious, and happy looks from complete strangers. Shouting from little kids and one child proceeded to run with me and shout at me in Albanian, “Why are you biking old woman? Why are you doing that?” Men and women alike starred at me. I was the first 15+ female they have ever seen riding a bike. I cannot help but hope that one day other women will be able to bike to Tetovo and around Tetovo on their bicycles. This journey takes more strength and courage that I ever thought imaginable.

Something I have been struggling in the Peace Corps thus far is people thinking it is the “posh corps” or a place “not very challenging”. This frustrates me beyond belief. I would love to see half those people endure what I have been through at my site and bounce back from those situations and keep moving forward. As a 21st Century volunteer in the balkans my service is very different to those volunteers in Africa and South America and remote islands, but my service has many challenges that they might not or do not have to experience. It has taken me a lot of time, and I am sure it will take a lot more time, but I have been learning and will continue to learn how to maintain my strength and courage to continue serving at the capacity I would like to.

Many things in my service I cannot disclose in a form of a blog or in email, but looking back on my service I have realized that I could really expand my experience into a complex novel full of detail and passion.

Culture shock, something that is experienced and illustrated differently in everyone. Today I experienced a different level of culture shock. I came home from my glorious bike ride, ready to face the rest of the night with enthusiasm when my host mom told me that I look fatter than when I arrived in their house a month ago. This sent me off my rocker. 15 months into service and this somehow touched a really sensitive area for me. Such a rude thing to say in American culture, but something completely appropriate and polite in Albanian culture. I broke down and needed my space immediately. Now, I have to find the strength and courage to accept the cultural differences. It is interesting what bothers you in the moment and what will ride you crazy, but in a completely different scenario does not mean anything to you.

Courage is something I have. Courage is something I need. Courage is something I hope to find more of in the next year.

A Chocolate Chip Cookie

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I have started to think that my Peace Corps service is beginning to look like my failures and successes with the delicious chocolate chip cookie. These amazing cookies seem to be a slight addiction that is reasoned in my head because it is a “cultural exchange” when I make them. In actual reality these cookies are a treat for me and something I can eat that tastes like America.

When I first came to Macedonia I thought I may be giving up this delicious cookie for the next 27 months. I ate oodles and oodles of cookies in hopes of overdosing on them–I tried this approach with Mexican food too. Neither were successful because deep down inside I am addicted.

Drawn to the baking world for stress-relief, during my first month in country I scrambled to find all the ingredients (with creative thinking) for these delightful desserts. I braved my host family’s kitchen and made cookies that were hard as rocks. Something was wrong with this recipe or the oven or something. The ingredients still made a tasty treat, but I couldn’t help but wonder what was wrong. After all, I am a baker at heart that wants a warm, out-of-the-oven cookie.

I was determined to master the mystery of the “ingredient” in these delicious cookies.

Two months later I tried another batch in my pre-service training family. This was the end of my stay with this family so my emotions were high. I was anxious and nervous about the future family and site. What is a great solution? Eating cookies of course. These cookies…melted into one big odd monster cookie. My host family took it with stride and we just treated the cookie like an awkward cookie cousin. Cutting up parts and devouring what we could.

Two months later, five months into service, I braved yet another kitchen my host family at my permanent site. I remember and reflected on my mistakes hoping that I could impress this new family with delicious desserts. These cookies got burnt because I was so distracted with everything else going on. The third batch and an epic fail. I was completely and utterly embarrassed. I know my way around a kitchen and an oven, but somehow here I failed in a brand-new house.

I took a break from this seemingly insolvable relationship i developed with the cookie Gods. I focused my attention in the cooking world with banana bread, no-bake cookies, Mexican, and Indian. All were great successes, but seemed to be greatly off task for what I really wanted.

Three months after the burnt cookie incident I received a package from a great friend’s mother, Mrs. Gardner. (I still cherish the items in this package daily.) This package had chocolate chip cookie mix! I could taste the ever so delightful cookie in my mouth finally, eight months after being in Macedonia. I made these cookies at my site mates house in order to avoid the “burnt” problem and they were a glorious celebration. This seemed to time well with what was going on at site. I accomplished at that spring with extra curricular activities for the school, but I was completely exhausted everyday from the different culture and trying to find my rhythm with my teachers, students, community, and family.

Three months after this success, nine months into site I attempting making these cookies yet again. Now, you would think the successful cookies from a mix would have satisfied me, but I did not think it was fair to settle for a mix being the success. I made these cookies at my counterpart’s house. These cookies were a gooey mess. I didn’t know what cooked and what didn’t cook. I was having some person struggles at the time, so this situation, looking back on it seemed to mirror my life in the Peace Corps.

Then the summer crazy created no time for cookies or for baking.

The whirlwind of life hit me and I wound up in a new family.

Yesterday I attempted to make chocolate chip cookies, thinking to myself this will be there very…last…time, if I don’t succeed. I would like to say with all my pride and happiness. These cookies are by fair the best cookies I have ever made in Macedonia. Now, as my good buddy Jake asked me, are these the best cookies you have ever made ever? No, not quiet, but I will settle for the best in Macedonia.

This has been one of the hardest 14 months in my life, but the most rewarding 14 months. I have made the best chocolate chip cookies yet because I do believe I have hit my stride. I am supporting my teachers; I have wonderful students that are engaged; I have a wonderful family supporting me in America and in my village; And I can only hope that the next 13 months will be powerful and amazing, if not more intense then the last 14 months in my service.

To cheers for me, have a chocolate chip cookie today and remember how hard I worked to make that cookie become a reality in Macedonia for me.

Long Time…No Write

Hello one and all!

I am alive and well, just busy with many transitions and trying to apply and work on different projects for my school and community.

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First order of busy…I have moved. Long story short. I moved. One year in one village and this next year in another village. These two villages are right next to each other and I teach at both schools. I am living with a different host family and they are as sweet as can be! This family has four people living in this cosy and friendly house. From youngest to oldest:

Fjolla: my youngest host sister who is in 7th grade. Her English is excellent and her curiosity for music, life, and anything is contagious. I already love her with all my heart. We have a cat, named Kitty, who she finds every free moment cuddling with.

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The amazing cat: Kiity

Alba: my older host sister, who is still younger than me, but is in the 2nd year of high school. She is at the medicine high school and very serious about her studies. She is passionate about art and music as well.

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Me, Fjolla, and Alba

Host father: my father is an art teacher and a junior high in a nearby village. He loves to paint and is very, very artistic. He loves to joke around and has a very accepting personality.

Host mother: my mother is patient, kind, and is always smiling politely with me. She is all about eating healthy and loves to talk about what I eat and why I eat it. She was an Albanian teacher before she had kids, which is very rare to find women with degrees as her age. She loves reading books.

This new family is very pleasant and I can’t wait to experience a full year with them!

In other news, I have been working really hard on a hopefully grant for my school. We are applying for a smart board that all the teachers will get trained in using. Along with the smart board hope, we have painted the lab, redone the flooring of the lab, gotten a shelf donation, and expanded the materials for all the English teachers. It is has taken a lot of energy, but completely worth it!

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I am still continuing with the running club, and the boys and girls basketball clubs.

The practice for the play Peter Pan has been hard, but is going pretty darn well. We hope to use a nearby school’s theatre to perform the play in December.

One School Year to Impact

One School Year to Impact

This year I have found myself very, very busy everyday and crawling into bed happy on how much I am helping at my school. One of the Macedonian teachers at the school pulled me aside today and personally thanked me for all the work I have done and will be doing this year. He told me I am a special person to be focusing on helping all the teachers, students, and community members. The love I feel when I entire my two schools is that of a super star of some sort. This thank you from this teacher that does not speak any English gave me the confidence and energy to continue going. I know my actions are appreciated and I hope to leave a mark that will keep teachers motivated to teach.

One of the projects that I have just started implementing is the recycling of plastic bottles. The idea behind this is to keep plastic bottles from being thrown into the river and streets and instead make a small profit on the bottles. One teacher two weeks ago complained to me that they have to pay for their own copies and bring their own paper to the school. I decided that this plastic bottle recycling will allow the school to have some money for paper. Teachers shouldn’t have to go to Tetovo (a 25 minute kombi ride) just to get some copies for their class. Instead this environmentally friendly movement will allow teachers to access paper from a green action. I hope over time to implement a paper recycling too where at least the other side of a page can be reprinted on. The teachers and students are behind this recycling because it is really easy.

Another project I am working on is trying to get a resource room for all the teachers in the school. Ideally I would love to have a smart board projector and more English books. It would be great to expand to Albanian books so that the reading level of the students could be expanded and worked on throughout the school year. This classroom that already has computers can be used by all the teachers and allow them all to have hands-on/technology classes. Right now we are using the classroom for power point presentations and getting the students excited for the potential here. So far one community member has donated bookshelves, another will be donating his time to paint, and the school will be buying paint for the resource room. Everything seems to be going well in wonderful happy way!

With this resource room, we are starting a school fundraiser. One class every Friday will bring baked goods from home and sell them at the bake-sale. All the other students in the school will buy these baked goods instead of going to the local store. This will allow us to acquire money slowly over time for the lab. This resource lab, if we get the funding for it, will need to have at least 30 % contribution from the community. I want to start these actions so that it illustrates the motivation in my community.

In addition, I am continuing with girls and boys basketball. Boys basketball has not met yet because they have been behaving badly every time we attempt to practice with the girls. There are less girls this year but who knows what’ll happen as the year progresses.

I have started a running club at my school which is adored and celebrated. All the students want to run around with me and have a blast together.

The other huge project one of my counterparts and I have started is having a school play. This has been a stressful, but successful endeavor. The plan is to perform the play this December at a private school in Tetovo. We are acting Peter Pan and I already see a huge progress in all the students’ English inside and outside of class. The trick will be costumes, but I am hoping they just work out in the end. Luckily my counterpart is really invested in this and will hopefully do a play after I leave–some level of sustainability.

My focus this year has been really giving it my all every school day and seeing what I could do that would be sustainable. I have fully implemented a grading system–engrade–and hope to implement it with the rest of the school.

In other news I just spent the last weekend celebrating Bajram with my tutor and best friend and her family. I got to experience Bajram with a half Macedonian, half Albanian family. I thoroughly enjoyed it and got to learn some different saying in Macedonian. This family has meant everything to me with teaching me how to make the creamy treleche, the sweet baklava, and the ever so spicy ajvar. I honestly feel like I could hang with them the rest of my life and I hope the two sisters I have grown to love I will stay friends with for the rest of my life: Gona and Dika.

Stepping into a World Unknown

 
Guest Writer Sheryl Burt
 
I had the opportunity and the privilege of being Kelly’s first American visitor during her first year of service in Macedonia! In my short week stay I was able get a glimpse into her new world. 
 
Let me begin by explaining how I got myself into traveling to such an unknown (by many Americans) place. It was senior year. Kelly and I were finishing up our education requirements, gearing up for student teaching, and excited about making a difference in the minds of the munchkins. She told me that she was seriously considering the Peace Corps and asked if I would visit her. Fresh off of our New Zealand Adventure, I was itching for more. So, of course I said YES without hesitation or knowledge of where Kelly would be placed. When Kelly found out she was placed in Macedonia (a country that I had never heard of and couldn’t locate on a map), I wasn’t swayed. The only stipulation was that I had to get a job…graduation was approaching and there were so many unknowns. 
Well, everything worked out. I started my first year teaching kindergarten and Kelly was making a difference halfway around the world. 
 
My Macedonia experience started with about 40 hours of travel (flights, layovers, time zone changes) and arriving in Skopje at about 12:30am. We did some exploring and traditional Macedonia hamburger eating before getting some sleep. With Skopje being a larger city, the first adjustment I had to make was the language barrier. I knew going in that I wouldn’t be able to understand or talk with the Macedonians but the experience was more than expected. I like to be able to do things for myself but the simple tasks like purchasing a bus ticket, ordering a meal, or paying for a purchase I had to entrust to Kelly. Don’t get me wrong, I’d trust this girl with my life, but there was a sense of helplessness that was uncomfortable. The biggest struggle was not being able to communicate with Kelly’s host family. She’d spent the last 8 months living with this family and I would have loved to get to know them more. During our shared meals, I would have liked to partake in the conversations or at least understand their discussions. Her host brother is fluent in English and I enjoyed the time I got to spend with him. 
 
Another thing that took me a while to grasp (and I still don’t understand), is some of their priorities. I understand that each culture is different and we all deem things more important than others. Kelly has told me from the beginning that Macedonia’s economy is in trouble and her village in particular is very poor with a high unemployment rate. However, while walking around the village, I didn’t see it. I expected to see the poverty in the buildings and houses, but it wasn’t there. The houses were aesthetically pleasing, a decent size, and the yards were well kept.  Kelly explained that appearance is a high priority. Poverty is not seen in the objects they own but in the hunger in their bellies. Along with appearance, family is one of their main priorities. Extended families usually live in the same village and are very supportive. They help each other out in any way they can. I was honored to be invited to dinner with Kelly’s extended host family. They welcomed me with open arms. Their love and support was evident even with a language barrier. The respect exhibited towards their elders was inspiring. Sometimes I feel like we have lost that in our culture. Kelly’s host grandmother was a remarkable lady with an awesome garden!! She let me sample some strawberries and dragon beans…oh my!! It makes me want to ditch the city and buy a plot of land!
 
Everywhere we went, we ran into some type of market/bazaar. I wish fresh fruit and vegetables were that easily available in our society. After I left, I found myself craving the watermelon that I had been indulging in for the past week. Another thing that amazed me was at the end of the day, the sellers left their produce/products on their  stands. Even in a poverty stricken community, there was a sense of honor and respect. Stealing was not an issue. This is not something we could find in our society. Just think about this for a second…high poverty, high unemployment, and hunger bordering on starvation, yet stealing is not a concern. I truly believe that speaks volumes. 
 
Macedonia is not one of those places you find in a destination book and you’ll never see it on the top 100 places to visit before you die. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have anything to offer! However, I wouldn’t recommend the trip unless you speak Macedonian or Albanian or you happen to have an awesome connection (like I did). It would be extremely complicated to navigate. 
 
I’d like to conclude with a shoutout to all the Peace Corps Volunteers who were apart of my Macedonia experience. Y’all are doing amazing work! I know that some days may be rough and you feel like your not making progress, but remember, your presence and attitude of caring is sometimes all that’s needed. I see it in the classroom all the time! Keep you head up and hearts open and never stop being awesome!!!
 
Kelly, thank you for an experience of a life time! Love ya girl!!!