Monthly Archives: February 2010

One Year After Invite/Let’s Try Being Reflective

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Last Febuary 27th I was invited to join the Peace Corps. My boss was out that day, giving me the freedom to carry on a whispered conversation with my nurse at 9:30am, then to call my parents and tell them I’d been medically cleared, then to play phone tag with my placement officer, who called me at 2pm, and then to call my parents again to tell them my invitation was going to be in the mail that day. Mostly I think I’ll remember the “who gives a shit” attitude of the whole day: if someone hears me talking about going into the Peace Corps, who gives a shit? I’m in the Peace Corps! Also, the week after this day that I spent thinking I was going to Azerbaijan.

I like making lists and therefore would like to have a detailed accounting of what’s gone on in the past year, but weirdly it doesn’t feel like much. Living in Macedonia feels normal, being in the Peace Corps feels normal. But in the past year I was finally able to shift from saying “I want to do Peace Corps” and getting a certain rolled eyes, gimme a break response to saying, “In September I’m moving to Macedonia to be a Peace Corps volunteer.” The responses – a certain air of “who the hell does she think she is?” – didn’t change that much, but at least I went from being the person who would always be saying I’d do Peace Corps to the person who actually was.

I quit the job that I hated, moved out of the apartment that I hated, spent two months at home, staged for Peace Corps, moved to Macedonia, moved in with my host family, moved to my site, started work. I know a lot has happened, but it’s hard to find a way to quantify it. A couple of times it’s occurred to me how weird it is to be here – what comes after this? Peace Corps was the thing I was thinking about for years, the thing that I always thought about when I thought of what I’d rather be doing. Now that it’s the thing I am doing, and the thing that is going by REALLY QUICKLY, I don’t know how to describe it anymore. It also becomes harder to define the experience when you’re not defending your decision to join all the time – trying to correct people who think that you’re doing Peace Corps because you can’t find a job, or were laid off from your job, or have no idea what you want to do with your life.

In the five months since I’ve come to Macedonia, though, I guess I’ve learned a lot of things and changed in a few ways: I’ve gained fifteen pounds, learned that not everyone needs a cutting board in order to chop food, learned some Macedonian and Albanian, learned to avoid dogs at all costs, learned to ignore (most of the time) groups of boys yelling, “What’s your name? What’s your NAME?”, learned to make pita and baklava (kind of), and learned to think of three-hour coffees as “short” visits. A year ago I wouldn’t have thought I would ever come home from work, see a dead, dismembered cow next to my house, and think of it as normal, or that I would look forward to the arrival of a package with US Weeklies and Reese’s Cups with a fervor I reserved, in the States, for things a little classier. (Though I’m at a loss for what right now – really good beer? Would anyone besides me qualify that as “classy”?) I wouldn’t have expected to become the fifteenth member of a family, or to spend the best part of my workday in the smoke-filled custodians’ room. I also wouldn’t have expected that the custodians would ever allow me to ring the bell for the end of class, but they did, and yeah, it was the highlight of my week.

Peace Corps is nothing like I thought it would be. I’m not dealing with physical hardship, and a lot of my “work” right now is centered on myself, rather than my community. But I guess I’m learning, and I’m trying to pick up certain statistics (ie things I am making up) as evidence of my eventual success at site, like that I am reading about 6 fewer books per month than I did in the states, and that I spend hardly any money on groceries because I can go days without eating a meal in my home besides breakfast, and that it’s now been over four weeks since I’ve been out of site. Also that even when I’m dissatisfied at work or with my language progress or just generally with myself, it’s never to the degree it was in the states – I haven’t once thought of something I’d rather be doing, or somewhere I’d rather be than here, possibly because the only thing I used to look to when thinking of what I’d rather be doing was the Peace Corps.

This isn’t to say there haven’t been shitty moments, like when I was sick for a week; or when I found out a mouse had eaten half my food; or when three days without water was followed by my boiler freezing, so I had to wash myself out of a mug because I didn’t have enough water for a genuine bucket bath; or when I’ve shown up to school with a lesson plan or activity only to learn that plans have changed and my work was pointless; or when I’m asked for the zillionth time why I don’t want to wear make-up and be beautiful; or when I am frustrated with my language progress; or when I’m standing right by a group of people listening to them discuss me because they think I don’t understand Albanian or Macedonian, as the case may be; or when we had an avalanche onto the road right before the Negotino wine festival and Strumica Carnival, barring me from traveling to either one. But all of these things are kind of weird and funny to me, so not such a big deal. And living next to my little sister A. goes a long way to making my crappy days not so crappy.

When someone is ringing your doorbell three or four times a day to tell you to come for coffee and to play, and wants to know every detail of your life, like what you ate for lunch, and comes over just to show you what she’s wearing, it’s hard to feel too shitty about yourself. And then there are those students who smile every time they see you, who hug you at the end of class or who run up to you on the street to give you a hug. One of my students does this every time he sees me – I’ll barely be able to see him way down the road, but he’ll spot me, run up, tell me how he is, hug me, and then run right back down the road.

So, thanks Peace Corps, for helping me to discover the wonders of turkish coffee, helva, baklava, Ruski chai, my weekly pazar, eggs so fresh there are still feathers stuck to them, pita, tavche gravche/fasule (these are not the same thing, but are both incredible bean dishes), daily fresh bread, my family, and most of all ajvar. I am pretty sure that whatever I do today will be more awesome than what I was doing a year ago.

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I am always confused

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Peace Corps did a great job preparing me to come to site and have nothing to do, to deal with a lot of alone time. I have American alone time – I haven’t been out of Debar for a month now – but no free time, and some days I have so much to do that I end up frozen, sitting in front of my heater unable to decide whether to study Macedonian, study Albanian, visit my family, plan for tomorrow’s lessons, research grants, begin planning some of the clubs I want to do, or relax and read. As a result I never relax and also rarely feel like I’m doing as much as I should be doing. But what I’m starting to realize is that no matter what I’m doing, it will never be the right thing to someone – even as I’m beginning to do more work at school, my director wants to know why I’m not learning more Albanian, and why I’m studying more Macedonian. I have to learn Macedonian because my family is Macedonian, but I need to study more Albanian lest my co-workers think I’ve given up on their language. Pretty much I never know what I should be doing.

So, I didn’t have the best day, canceled my Albanian and Macedonian lessons after work so I could finally relax and have a day for myself, but then was too racked with guilt to take advantage of my free time. It was a beautiful day, though, and I went on a walk. The photo is of the road leading to Albania – walk about 30 more minutes from where I took this and you hit the border. In just a few days I can hit Albania if I want to (we’re not allowed to leave the country during our first three months at site) but, you know, I think it’ll be a while since right now I don’t even want to get a combi 30 minutes down the road to the next volunteer. The first three months is about finding your place at work and at site, but I think I’ve still got some work as far as traveling goes – it’s probably healthy to get out of site a little more often than I do.

Landslide, Landslide, Avalanche, Landslide

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I had been planning to write something about traveling in Macedonia, but instead this will be one more concerned with not traveling.

Last Thursday we had an avalanche/landslide on the D. – M. road. This is, for those not familiar with the roads of Macedonia, the only road that leads into my site from the north – it’s how I go to Skopje. If I want to travel pretty much anywhere I first need to go to Skopje, a three-hour ride from my town. There’s one road that leads out of town to the south and runs to Struga. So, when you have an avalanche onto that one road leading to Skopje, plans can get changed.

This Tuesday was the Strumica Carnival, which I’d been planning to go to for a couple months. On Saturday, when Thursday’s landslide still wasn’t clear, I had pretty much realized I wouldn’t be able to get to the carnival, barring a long and painful journey down to Struga and then up to Skopje, where I would catch a bus to Strumica. (Something like ten hours of traveling.) The combi out of Debar did begin running again on Monday, but I had decided I should stay here in Debar and focus on work, since I missed a full week recently when I had the flu followed by a respiratory infection.

This turned out to be one of the few genuinely, undeniably good decisions I’ve made so far in Macedonia.

At 3 P.M. this Wednesday we had our second landslide of about the same size as the first. That’s 150,000 cubic meters of dirt and assorted crap, if I remember correctly. At 9 P.M. Wednesday the third landslide/avalanche. Then, at 8 A.M. this morning the fourth.

Suffice it to say that I’m not going anywhere anytime soon. And that I’m happy a new package, full of peanut butter cups and spices, arrived yesterday, in that slight gap between avalanches.

If there are any geologists out there reading this, I apologize for not knowing what to call the falling of all these rocks and dirt and snow on our road.

All these avalanches are about 30 minutes outside town, so I can’t get there to take a photo. One of another volunteer’s friends got out there and took a few photos of the first landslide, though, so here they are. That mound of dirt and snow used to be our road.

Also, the next time New Jersey gets two epic snowstorms in one week, I’m not going to laugh at my family. I’ve learned my lesson…

The Peace Corps Diet. Or, Return of the Freshman 15

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My most vivid memory of traveling to Macedonia is of walking through the DC airport with 90 pounds of luggage while struggling to keep my pants from falling down. Back then I wore this pair of khakis for the flight because they were so loose that wearing them was like not wearing pants at all. These were not pants safe to wear without a belt.

This is to say that I was really thin before coming to Macedonia. I read the statistics on Peace Corps weight gain and loss with real nonchalance before coming here – so most guys lose weight, while the girls gain? I’m Ellen (your word of choice here) Rhudy, and I was not going to succumb to those statistics. Fifteen pounds later, I feel like I’m a freshman in college again, and I’m starting to suspect I’m not losing this weight until I return to the states…

Those khakis, that once hung so ominously low on my hips? They now fit only in the most button-straining of fashions. Jeans that I could in my lazier moments (not that I had many of them) remove without the hassle of unbuttoning or unzipping them now require five minutes of laying down, wriggling and jumping to get into, and leave me with such a solid case of muffin top that I wear the same giant sweater nearly every day. One of my two belts is out of commission because I can’t get the buckle to the first hole. My two nice button-down shirts are a bit too tight to button. Things are bad, yet I’m spending hardly money on food.

A lot of the culture in Macedonia revolves around food, regardless of whether you’re in a Macedonian or Albanian household. People want to feed you, to make you feel welcomed into their family, to show that they care about you and, yes, to fatten you up a bit. As an example, last night I had тавче гравче with my family. After I had taken one spoonful of beans my баба (grandmother) put another ladle of beans in my bowl. Then again, halfway down the bowl. Then, when I’d practically made it through that, she refilled the whole bowl. This in addition to leaning not one, not two, but three loaves of bread against my bowl. Then came dessert, which for me meant two pieces of cake, a couple cookies and two apples. And yes, they made sure to give me the biggest ones.

I didn’t believe this when I read about it in the states, but in Macedonia, if you care about your family and your friends, you’re going to eat as much as you can. Five or six times a week I embark on the sort of epic binge that in the states I would reserve for a night at a great restaurant, or for when I was around someone I thought would be unusually impressed by my ability to pack it away. But because Macedonian culture centers on family and on food, it’s natural that food is more an expression of love here than it is in the states and that you’ll have to eat like a champ more often than you did in America.

I didn’t worry too much about my new fifteen pounds before now because it seemed temporary. After my miraculous weight gain during training (I was getting one meal a day and still managed to increase my weight by over 10%), which ended with my discovery that I couldn’t zip my special swearing-in dress (you should have seen my host mom’s face when I told her…it was a good day for Floreja), I thought: eh! I’ll be on my own at site, I’ll lose the weight then. Now that I’ve been at site two months, I recognize the fallacy of that thought. I still live with a family, and eat with them four or five times a week. When I have an Albanian lesson or meet my counterpart to lesson plan, I often eat at her home. If I drop by someone’s house for coffee, I’m going to eat something.

That’s how, then, I manage to spend very little money on food, and cook so rarely despite loving to cook. And now that I’m thinking more about trying to lose this weight, and what that entails, I’m not sure if I should even try. If losing weight means eating less food, which means eating less of my family’s food, is it worth it? Or do I suck it up and accept that this new and slightly fatter Ellen is going to be a part of my experience here, and continue enjoying the food and hospitality and family life to the fullest?

Host Families (the bad, and the really good)

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I thought about joining the Peace Corps for about three years before beginning my application, and one of the things that I got hung up on was the thought of living with a host family for over two years. I’m not sure quite why, but I think my hesitance came out of the fact that I don’t want to live with my own parents for two years at this point in my life, let alone with someone else’s family. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.) I envisioned a lot of negatives, too – having to eat food I didn’t like, lack of privacy, having to listen every day to a language I didn’t understand and being regarded as sort of a weirdo by my family. This last is of course an issue I’ve been dealing with my whole life, so nothing new there.

I needn’t have worried, because Macedonia – up through my training group – didn’t place volunteers with families for the whole two years, just for the three-month training period. (Starting with the fifteenth group of volunteers, some will be placed with families for their term of service. I think this is awesome! You’ll learn why shortly.) A lot of my fears about host family life were borne out during training; there were some days when I couldn’t bear facing my family, and unfortunately the other trainees in my community felt the same way, which meant I rarely had people visiting me at home.

I didn’t blog much during training, and I think it’s good that I didn’t write a lot about my host family experience then. It improved slightly towards the end, and now that it’s a couple months behind me it’s easier to judge the unpleasant aspects of it, and how I could have changed my behavior to better deal with my family. I did change for my last few weeks, actually, and from that learned a lot about how I should have acted from my first day of homestay. (Sidebar: I’m on my fourth day of the flu and although this is my first real recovery day, I’ve still got shockingly poor reflexes. I knocked over my third glass of water for the day, probably my eighth of the past four. It’s like I’m six years old again.)

Also, this is a story with a happy ending.

So, most of my nightmares of what living with a host family might be like turned out to be true. I felt more like a showcase than part of the family, heard a little too often about how much money they were getting from Peace Corps, got one real meal a day and showered once every four or five days because there would be widespread panic every time I threatened to use five minutes of hot water. My father tended to get angry when I didn’t understand what he said, rolling eyes, really encouraging stuff. For a while I hid out because I didn’t always feel capable of facing him, but at the end of training decided to take advantage of a captive family and work on my language skills. I got to know them better and to appreciate them more, and while I still had some issues with them, things did improve towards the end.

For two months I had a kind of rough introduction to the host family experience, and was relieved to be moving on to site, where I’d be living on my own, and would never again have to answer to a family about where I was going, why I wanted to shower, why my Macedonian was so bad (because I live with Albanians?), and never again have to listen to a lecture on the benefits of, well, being like my host father.

I didn’t know then that I would be moving into a family compound in Debar and living with a fifteen-member family: two brothers, their mother, their wives, and their combined nine children. (There are actually ten, but one lives in Canada with her husband.) I probably would have been a little more scared to move to site if I knew what I was heading into.

My family here is not a host family, but my landlord’s family; but after a week here, I thought of them as more of my family than my host family during training. I know that in some countries volunteers live in a sort of family compound with their host families, so my situation here is not that different from their permanent homestay set-up; it is a lot different from my homestay during training, because I have my own home and a lot more privacy than I did before. But any time I want I can head over to their house for coffee, lunch or dinner, and most days I do spend a few hours there. My family owns a butcher shop in town and sometimes slaughters cows next to my house (nearly every day during the summer, they told me) and, as my father said, I must really like them if their line of work doesn’t get to me.

I’m, you know, a vegetarian.

Turns out that people are the same everywhere, and some people are just good people, while others might want to get to know you because you’re the American. I started to realize my family here really liked me when they kept urging me to come over for meals, despite not getting any money for feeding me. From a strictly economic standpoint, it makes no sense for them to be feeding me; they’d be making more money if they left me to my own devices over here when it comes to cooking. But that’s not all of it – it’s that, after a few weeks of trying to get me to eat meat, they began to tell me when they’d be cooking a meal without meat, sometimes days in advance. When they make pita, they conserve enough from the meat-free pan that I could eat for a couple days (or one lunch, I’m getting pretty good at eating here). They made pizza a couple weeks ago, and made me my own pizza without meat. For whatever reason, these people really care about me, and I feel the same way about them. I also feel unbelievably lucky that I went from a homestay experience that wasn’t always positive to living with what has to be the greatest host family ever.

Because I’ve been sick and haven’t had a whole lot else to do, I talked to my dad a lot over the past few days about why I like it here so much, and it comes down to my family. Without my family I would be going to work and occasional coffees, but I wouldn’t have anyone to come home to. When I was in Skopje for a whopping nine hours last week, dying to come home, it was because I wanted to be back with my family. And while I don’t want to think about maybe not accomplishing anything during my two years here (seriously, I’ve got to accomplish something), even if I don’t, I know it will have been a worthwhile experience because of my family.

A lot of volunteers in Macedonia are placed in cities, and I think part of the reason for this is the old rule against placing volunteers with families for the whole two years of their service. It can be hard to find housing for a volunteer in a small community. I wrote earlier that I think it’s good to place volunteers with families, and I’ve written a lot about how I wouldn’t want to be in a city. It’s because I’m pretty sure that without my family, I wouldn’t feel like I had a real base here. I’d come home after work and watch TV shows or read novels all day, and I wouldn’t work as hard on the language. It’s also been an amazing cultural lesson – in Philadelphia, I didn’t know the name of a single neighbor in my apartment building; they didn’t talk to me, and I didn’t talk to them. In Macedonia, on my first day in Debar, I was already a part of this giant family, no questions asked, before any of us got around to asking each others names.