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?

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