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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