Traveling to Macedonia and knowing that I’ll be with a host family for two years means being a guest in someone’s house for two years. The perspective of guests is very different here. They are a daily/weekly occurrence. People have guests over at their houses weekly and daily depending on who they live near and what time of the year it is. Spending the night at someone’s house is considered normal and expected. It’s a world full of sleepovers for everyone. Imagine your mother, father, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, and uncles all at the same house visiting frequently. Family and family guests are valued and considered the most important time investment. The saying “blood is thicker than water” has shaped into a new meaning since I’ve lived here. Everyone values family and beyond the significance of the United States cultures I have been exposed to. I think it is something beautiful and important because the support and sense of community is felt by everyone–which is absent sometimes in the United States.
Today I experienced something I am still overwhelmed by. There are ethnic tensions between Albanians and Macedonians. These tensions have been prominent for years and lots of blood has been shed over these tensions. There are always exceptions to the rules and I witness the exception today. One of my counterparts told me about this mysafir (pronounced “me-sa-fer” guest visit) last week and told me I would love this visit. I don’t particularly enjoy mysafirs because most of the time its a gathering of women that just complain about their lives, the prices, and all the weddings going on. This is prevalent in each culture: venting sessions. I just struggle at relating to them and their struggles. I tend to drift off in my head and find myself starring at the walls. I have had several breakthroughs of actually understanding what is going on in the mysafir. Now that I have a pretty good understanding, my interest is dissipating. Trusting my counterpart’s conviction that I would enjoy this mysafir, I prepared myself for a longwinded zone-out session.
I entered the house of one of the teacher’s at the school’s sister’s house, who happened to be the Macedonian language teacher for the Albanian students. I was greeted by two girls about my age that eagerly spoke to me in nearly fluent English. This put a grin instantly on my face because now I would be able to at least talk to them about their lives at a deeper level since there was no language barrier. I met the sister and then walked into the living room. Trying to eye-out a good seat that would allow me to extend my legs without being squished by small tables (yes, I’ve been on enough mysafirs that I know comfort is a priority since I will probably be there for 2-5 hours).
Suddenly, I was face-to-face with a woman that was enthusiastically speaking Macedonian to me. I knew my Macedonian language teacher at the school was Albanian, but she has spoken to me in Macedonian sometimes to see where I am at in that language. I assumed that this guest was just trying to play a joke on me, so I laughed and told her in Albanian that my Macedonian is dreadful because I live with Albanians. She just blankly starred at me. I felt my cheeks turn red and I hurriedly apologized in Macedonian that I thought she was Albanian I know little Macedonian because I work in an Albanian community, all in Macedonian. She died from laughter. Then she lectured me, like every Macedonian I have ever met, that I should continue to learn Macedonian because I live in Macedonia, not Albania. Then I told her that I agree, I live in Macedonia, but since I live with Albanians, my volunteer service is centered around serving them. She was surprised at my confidence and agreed that the two languages are hard to learn at the same time.
The next two hours I switched my Albanian language brain and Macedonian brain constantly. It was absolutely exhausting. Luckily the two young women and my counterpart translated to English from both languages when I struggled to keep up. The way all eight women at the mysafir embraced both languages and tried to include everyone was something so special I could not classify the feeling inside my guts. What I witnessed was not only multi-ethnic, but multi-religious. They talked about the Easter holiday and the Qur’an. Recently I found myself in a pessimistic runt where I constantly found myself wondering why I kept trying to promote peace. There was peace, right, in front, of my eyes.
Then, we all sat down at a table and ate PET (a type of bread/burek that has spinach and onions in it). All the women ate this food happily with laughter and jokes. I wanted to capture this sense of content livelihood and put it in my back pocket for a rainy day.
After the simple, but joyous meal, I talked for two hours with the two young daughters that were practically fluent in English. We discussed many liberal topics: gender roles, education for women, how girls should be told they are smart (not beautiful), music, Camp GLOW, and what they want to do with their futures. One is studying at university to become a doctor and the other is applying to law schools in the United States.
Within four hours my perspective of ethnic tensions and liberal women my age changed dramatically. I was so happy after this mysafir that I practically skipped home.
Yesterday I had two visitors that studied abroad in Ghana. I showed them Tetovo and shared my perspective of all the layers that is Macedonia. It was odd to see two people that were in Ghana in this Balkans setting. It was refreshing to see how much I’ve grown since my time in Ghana, but also to see how my study abroad experience and my peace corps service are similar. These were my first “American’ guests. It was neat to play hostess. I enjoyed the fact that I got to see Tetovo through the eyes of someone new. i have become numb and used to a lot of aspects of Macedonia that I didn’t realized occurred until they came. I wonder how my views of my site will change over the next 20 months.
Since I have been here for over seven months I have several achievements I want to celebrate.
1. This is the longest amount of time I have been abroad and I am going strong.
2. I have surpassed my French language abilities in Albanian. I just received my scores back from my LPI an international communication language exam for Albanian. I received Intermediate-Advanced, which I am really proud of myself for receiving, especially after struggling through three months of learning two languages.
3. I have lived with two host families for seven months. This is the longest amount of time I have lived with a family since high school. It hasn’t been easy, but I want to celebrate the fact that I am going strong.
4. I have managed to give each of my four counterparts attention and celebrate their strengths in teaching.
5. I have built two girls basketball teams from the ground up. There is still a lot of work to be done with that, but I am excited that it has been successful in the past four months.
6. I have two English clubs, which consists of journal writing, a book club, and general conversation hours.
7. I had a talent show that was centered around English. Although there was a lack of organization at times, it was a pretty successful first attempt.
8. I have stayed sane this entire time. I know that sounds silly, but sometimes the Peace Corps can get to you and as my wise PCV told me, yes Sarah Johnson I am quoting you, “You can’t put a price on sanity.”
9. I can genuinely say that I feel like I am doing exactly what I set out to do here. Grow as a person and connect to a community.
10. I have changed the way each of my counterparts think about planning with lessons and I will continue working on that.
11. I find myself thoroughly enjoying alone time. This is something I did not have before the Peace Corps.
12. I have learned two songs on the guitar and am currently working on several others.
13. I have made long-lasting friendships with my sitemates and other volunteers throughout the country.
14. I have acquired friendships with Host Country Nationals. These friendships are a bit different than ones within my American cultural perspective.
15. I am still running several days each week. This activity has helped me keep my sanity and I hope to continue to do it throughout the rest of my service.
Although I am a guest in these cultures, I do feel like I am slowly integrating in my own way. My host brother told me the other day that I am and will always be apart of the Aliti family (my host family in my current village).