Monthly Archives: April 2010

On how I can love and hate everything about being here

Standard

Tonight I came back from English class to find a large and indescribable piece of furniture in my kitchen. I think it may be a jewelry case from a new storefront my family began renting.

Really, though, who cares. This is a piece of furniture notable only for having turned my kitchen into an obstacle course, and for its sudden and unexpected appearance in the room I cook, work and sleep in.

It also highlights in part one of the frustrations of living with a family. Really, what I am going to do about this giant piece of furniture besides meekly ask my mother at what date they plan to move it out of my kitchen? Because I will be living with them for the next year and a half and hang out with them every day, I can’t pick up the furious tenant routine I practiced in Philadelphia.

I’d been planning to do something on the pros and cons of my life here – although really it’s not even pros and cons, more like how everything here is the same from day to day, and only my reactions and moods change. I can’t think of a more appropriate time to do so than now, as I sit in the shadow of my new furniture. All the things I dislike or find hard about being here are the same things that I love about it.

MY FAMILY:

Bad Mood: I hate it when my bell starts ringing at 9am. No, I don’t want to play. I don’t want coffee! I don’t want to come over and watch soap operas! I don’t want you to come in my house and spend all day listening to Macedonian pop music while you organize things for the wedding! I want to be left alone, free to sit on my floor eating chocolates and crying as I read YA romance novels, just like in America.

Most volunteers seem to have a family they’re especially close to in their town, and who they’re expected to visit frequently, but having your family coming into your home five or six times a day (sometimes that many times before noon) is a different sort of relation.

Good Mood: Some days, even days when I feel shitty, I love to have my family ringing my doorbell. When I’m on the verge of shifting into an irredeemably bad/sad mood and my doorbell rings with an invitation of some sort, it saves me and leaves me once more feeling decent about being here. Yesterday, when it seemed certain I would spend the night curled up on my sofa under my sleeping bag (that I have not been sleeping on my fold-out sofa in the other room but in my sleeping bag on my unfold-outable sofa in the living room is a good indication of my current mental state) listening to the new National album, my sisters came over and told me to come for dinner and to watch Bandini. Saved. Today when I came home from the store (trying to create things to do so I didn’t spend the whole afternoon sleeping) I played ball with my sister J. for an hour. Saved. They make my life here worthwhile and satisfying when other things aren’t going well.

After only five months, the thought of having to leave them in a year and a half makes me sadder than I can describe. For the rest of my life, I will have a second family here in D. And for these two years I am lucky enough to see their culture up close, every day. Probably every volunteer here will go to at least one wedding during their service, but I am the only one who gets to live with a family and help with the preparations in the months leading up to the wedding. I may well be the only volunteer here whose American parents have been invited to a Macedonian wedding.

EVERYONE ON THE STREET KNOWS ME:

Bad Mood: In America, I walked and ran as a way to clear my mind and get away from people. I could go into the woods near my apartment and safely run, mostly alone, for an hour. I listened to my iPod when I walked. I like to be anonymous, to go out and do my own thing without anyone noticing or caring what I’m doing. Here, I can’t. I can’t walk down the street without students yelling at me, greeting me, or running up for a hug. I just want to be left alone! People I don’t know know me because their children know me. I can never go out for a walk to get away from it all, and my attempts to find mostly people-free areas to walk have only underscored that I should not be walking in mostly people-free areas. (Why? There is always a person there, and he is usually a dude, and you’re alone.) Every time I walk out my door I do so knowing I’m going to be bombarded with greetings or, sometimes, with insults.

Good Mood: My students run up to me on the street and hug me. They want to know when I’m going to be back in class. Their parents know me because they hear about me from their children, and that they seem to like me indicates that their kids are saying good things.

EVERYONE, IN EVERY STORE, KNOWS ME:

Bad Mood: An extension of the above. The store owners know what I usually buy. They know where I’m from, how old I am, where I work, how long I’ve been here and how much longer I will be here. They know where I live, they know my family here, and soon enough they will know my family from America as well. Thus, they not only know me, they know what I buy. When I need wine I may go to the large store in town, but the same women are always working there, and they sure know what I’m buying and how often I’m buying it. One day I would like to enter a store without anyone paying any attention to me, but that’s not going to happen until I am back in America.

Good Mood: When I had the flu, I went for the first time to the little store that is closest to my house. The only two things I wanted in the world were peach juice and a Popkek. When I went back the next day, the owner remembered that I wanted a Popkek.

Today, when I went into a little store I last visited in December, the storekeeper remembered me. “You’re the American! You were here with your friend!” and then proceeded to profusely thank me for my purchase.

I’ve been in other stores a couple times when someone has asked about me and the storekeeper has gone through my entire life history. How do they remember this? I don’t know, but it’s awesome, and it’s one of the reasons I now shop almost exclusively at the little stores near my house.

I AM KIND OF OUT IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE:

Bad Mood: Having now spent five months listening to people tell me they are going to come to my town, I fully expect to hear the same for the next year and a half. D. is not a destination in and of itself, and it is not on the way to anything. I don’t know why people say they’re going to visit, but it drives me nuts. Don’t say you will! We both know you’re not coming all the way out here, and that’s fine! In the same vein, I am rarely going to visit other volunteers because it’s a pain to travel out of my site – nearly any trip I take first requires a three-hour trip to the capital. I can’t hope on a train, like I could in Philly or New Jersey, and go to a museum, a show, a new bar.

Good Mood: I don’t want to be near other volunteers. I have some great friends among the volunteers, but I’m not here to make friends with Americans. My relief at not having sitemates, or even “near sitemates,” is indescribable. All my projects will be my own, and will succeed or fail based on how well I build them and how good a job I do of making connections in my town. I’m forced to have HCN (host country national) friends because there’s no one else here I can be friends with. I am going to learn both Macedonian and Albanian because people here don’t know English, as they do in the cities or in tourist towns. D. is a good-sized town with everything I need. I am out of Peace Corps’ way, which makes it easy for me to evade their notice. And, because D. is not on the way to anything, I’m never going to have to deal with volunteers crashing on my sofas.

When I first got to site it seemed unimaginable to live without an American and I spent a lot of time with my closest volunteer neighbor. After a couple months here, though, despite being good friends with this volunteer, I didn’t want to see her so much. It’s distracting to have another American around, and it takes me away from the things I think I should be doing with my family or co-workers. I’ve always been selfish with my time, and dislike changing my plans for the benefit of someone else. Since I don’t have volunteers coming through Debar, I never have to change my plans (miss pita Sunday or a tavche gravche night or a coffee with a friend) to fit them in.

Being away from Americans is freeing, and forced me to adjust to life here. I can’t escape from things here with American time, so I’m forced to deal with it in other ways, like blogging or sitting in front of my heater eating chocolate bars… or by playing ball with my sister, drinking coffee with my mom, watching soap operas with my family. Or blogging.

WHAT I THINK OF THE PEACE CORPS AS AN ORGANIZATION:

Bad Mood: Grassroots change is great, but in some situations it can’t do much. Many of the problems the education system here has cannot be changed in the classroom: you need to have someone leading the system in a different direction. I worry that there is an overwhelming focus on how many volunteers are “in the field,” rather than on whether they are doing good work where they already are, and if there’s work for an increased number of volunteers. There’s a focus on numbers that doubtless inspires some tweaking of facts. And, in the end, how lasting can any change be that is brought about by foreigners, or with the aid of foreigners, rather than change that comes strictly from a people themselves?

Good Mood: We are, at least, trying.

The Food Gods

Standard

When my family brought out a carton of Popkeks on New Year's, I knew I was in the right house.

Some days, like yesterday, the Food Gods smile on me. I woke up craving chocolate, and after playing with A. and eating lunch, went to the store with her. There is a little store on the bottom floor of a family’s house about a five-minute walk from us. The first time I went there I had the flu and wanted only a Pop Kek (surely the finest expression of Macedonian snack food there is). The owner remembered my love of junk food the next few times I came in, and since then I’ve been struggling to establish myself as someone who does not buy these foods for herself, but for her five-year-old sister.

So, you know, I go to the store with A. because it’s a reliable and shame-free way of getting chocolate.

After eating our chocolate bars, walking to the pazar to see our “brother” Ar., and playing some more, I went to my counterpart’s house for an Albanian lesson. She had made chocolate cake, and again, the day got just a little better. About fifteen minutes before I left her sister went to buy ice cream bars from the store across from their house, and again, my day got a little better.

Not being sure that this chocolate fix would hold through the night, I went to the biggest grocery store in town, which I generally only go to when I want to buy a Ritter Sport Caramel Nut Bar, or a bottle of wine (that costs only slightly more than the Ritter Sport). You already know what I bought here.

Saturday is usually tavche gravche night, but yesterday my family made crepes. This being a meal they knew I could get behind, I was called in straight from my Albanian lesson. I fought through four crepes slathered with chocolate cream before refusing more, having hit that point at which all pleasure from the chocolate shifts over to nausea.

This is when they brought out the dessert, not “sugar money” but something very similar. Sugar money is, basically, cake soaked in sugar water. This was a pastry soaked in sugar water.

Sugar money

I’m going to stop wondering now why I’ve gained weight here. Actually, I can only marvel that I haven’t gained more weight, because until we hit that sugar money last night, I was thrilled by how my hopes for the day’s food had matched up so well with what I actually received. I often wake up excited for a certain meal, because I know my family’s schedule – every Tuesday and Saturday we have tavche gravche for dinner, and every Sunday pita for lunch. But yesterday…this was on a different level, with everyone I saw in town apparently conspiring to bring me exactly what I had hoped for upon waking.

I ended the day sitting on my sofa clutching my stomach, and knowing that today is both pita day and rescheduled tavche gravche night. Wish me luck.

Do you ever work, anyway?

Standard

Candy wrote a fantastic entry on her job. If you’re looking for something similar here, like my thoughts on the structure of the Macedonian education system and all the interesting meetings I’ve been to about education here, you’re in trouble because this entry is just to prove that I do, occasionally, work.

I frequently reference how I don’t do anything at work. This is sometimes true (some days I only go in for about an hour, and am not in any classes) and sometimes not. This is in large part because I am still, after four months here, trying to figure out my schedule. The director and vice-director of my school want me to work not just with every English teacher in the school, but every teacher in the school. Need I say that I am not qualified to do this, or that my Albanian isn’t good enough for this type of work? To appease them after spending my first couple months working with just two teachers (and mainly with my counterpart, D.), I began going to school in the other shift some days, and made a blank schedule for the teachers to fill in when they wanted me to come to class.

This kind of worked, and kind of didn’t. Some weeks I was in class every day, and some days I wasn’t in class at all. The sign-up sheet didn’t solve all my scheduling problems, as I’d hoped it would; my main problem, that I wasn’t able to talk with all the teachers about the schedule because they work in different shifts, didn’t go away. It turns out it’s just as hard to coordinate on a lesson when someone writes down the details as when you make a vague verbal agreement to work together “one day next week.”

Since returning from my in-service training in Ohrid, which was last Monday through Thursday, I’ve only been going to classes with D. It’s been kind of fantastic. Every day I know that I’m going to work for three or four hours, and every day I am with students I know. I’m comfortable working with D., and it’s easy to plan lessons with her.

This is also the first time in months that I’ve had any consistency to my schedule, and I like it. Maybe my job still consists of thinking of dumb things for my students to do, but when I’m with D. I feel like they are MY students, rather than ones I’m visiting. These are the kids I’ve been with ever since site visit back in November, and being back with the first and third grades every day is a good, comfortable feeling. And although I don’t feel like I got a lot out of IST, it did get me thinking more about changes I can make in the classroom beyond lesson planning – getting into classroom management and things that I can only do effectively if I’m a regular presence in the classroom.

We held a contest that involved students racing to get certain items of my clothing, then dressing one of the students in their group.

As my dad said, third grade is a great year because you can still do dumb things like this and the kids think it's awesome.

Inadvisable though it is to have favorites, I kind of love this girl.

Beyond this, not much else has been going on. The weather is alternating between awful, pouring rain all day, and gorgeous, leaving me confused and unable each morning to decide whether to bring my umbrella with me or not. I’ve lost two umbrellas in about the past two weeks, and now am on a quality 100 denar (about $2.50) umbrella I bought in Struga on my way home from IST, having left the previous (200 denar) one in the back of a taxi three days after buying it.

I’ve done six interviews for Camp GLOW so far this week, and have four more scheduled for tomorrow. It takes a lot to inspire me, but I love meeting all these girls. It is also a nice change from early on in the recruiting process, when I was only able to pull one applicant from my school, the numbers of interested girls declining as we went along with the application process.

In closing news, I passed both of my LPIs (language tests), which I took when I was in Ohrid. I scored higher on Macedonian than Albanian, which surprised me but probably shouldn’t have, since that’s the language I hear and speak for three or four or five hours each day in my home. But having done a Macedonian lesson today that required me to read a (very short) magazine article, I’m starting to realize that my strengths in the languages are very different. Because I speak and listen to a lot of Macedonian, I’m able to score not terribly on a spoken exam, but it takes me an hour to read a couple paragraphs in Macedonian. And while my spoken Albanian is kind of a disaster, I’m able to read political magazines and the newspaper in Albanian, as opposed to…uh…Macedonian fashion magazines. I am, however, far more likely to understand Macedonian news than Albanian.

I should put up photos of Ohrid but, you know, I’m feeling too lazy for that. Despite being in Ohrid for four days, I didn’t see much of the town – it rained all week, excepting the one day we had a short tour. This was notable mostly because I was one of a few volunteers to get lost during the tour, and because I was able to see the church from the first photo of Macedonia I ever saw.

As one last note, I am a major lover of spring but this year have mixed feelings about its arrival. When my host family started breaking out the turshi (pickled vegetables) back in October I couldn’t stomach it, but now that I’m rapidly approaching the date at which it’s unacceptable to keep eating pickled vegetables when there are fresh (& cheap) ones at the pazar, I don’t want to see it go. A summary of my week thus far includes about thirty minutes sitting on the floor, eating straight from my jar of turshi, each day. Ajvar is also going to go, if I want to eat like my family here – people only eat ajvar during the winter. Things to look forward to, though, include making ajvar with my mom S. in five months.

This Country Changes You

Standard

In Macedonia, I say yes to pretty much everything.

Coffee? Yes, absolutely!
A third bowl of tavche gravche? Yes, absolutely!
An hour in the janitors’ closet, which has smoke instead of air? Yes, absolutely!
Want to see a cow slaughter? Yes, absolutely!
Want to watch us make pita for three hours? Yes, absolutely!

An unintended side effect of this seems to be an increased openness in all areas of my life, manifested as an intense interest in ads for diet pills and all products advertised on television. If you need to find me, I am probably with my host mother, clipping ads for cellulite cream and discussing the most effective methods of weight loss that don’t involve actually eating less.

In Other Words, I Have Mixed Feelings on Everything

Standard

I am well known for my sparkling personality, which is one reason it’s such a shock to me that I’m so often in a foul mood here in Macedonia. I mean, some days nothing can make me happy – not my “work,” not my personal life (this mostly consists of me looking into a mirror while making small talk), not my host family, not other volunteers.

One day this will be followed up with a post about all the shit I love about all the above, but let’s forget that for now.

I think I’ve referenced the fact that I’m doing nothing at work, but really, the extent to which I Do Nothing is often unbelievable. I only worked – really worked, like for six hours instead of one class or coffee – one day last week. I don’t really know what I’m doing when it comes to the vaguely described secondary projects I’m supposed to be working on, with my lack of knowledge/ability being one of many things that makes me question what the point of Peace Corps in this country, or my being part of it, even is.

I’m pretty separate from the Peace Corps bureaucracy in Macedonia, being located an impressive three-hour ride outside the capital (that in most countries this would be one of the more accessible sites should tell you something about the stylish life I lead in Macedonia), but most of my interactions with Peace Corps serve only to reinforce my relief that I’m so rarely visited or contacted. There’s a definite air of being patted on the back at all times, even when you’ve done shit to deserve it. Most communications end with a reassurance of the great job I’m doing, but, let’s face it – I’m not really DOING a job. Although I get out and do shit every day, after over four months in site I have yet to do anything of real worth and have not worked a full week for months. For all anyone in the Skopje office knows, I spend all day sitting around in my pajamas watching videos and eating chocolate chip cookies, but I am constantly being congratulated for the positive impact I am having on my community. The longer I am in Peace Corps the more I suspect that I’m far from a good volunteer. I am a lot better at thinking than doing, and I think the ideal volunteer would be someone capable of getting into the community and meeting people, doing shit, without so much internal debate.

Part of my frustration with Peace Corps staff is that many of the people working for it – and I’m not talking about the Macedonians, who have the benefit of being from this country and often of working with volunteers for years – don’t evidence a great understanding of the culture. Maybe they know a lot about Macedonian culture and I’ve just missed out on that because I live in a predominantly Muslim community; but it is difficult and frustrating to attempt to explain your family’s and co-workers’ culture to someone you think should know more.

This is, I think, what’s ultimately most frustrating about Peace Corps, after not being able to fit in any of clothes or doing anything of real worth. You can’t explain your experience to people back home, to people in the Peace Corps office, or even to other volunteers. I feel like my experience here in Debar is so different from that in other communities that I usually don’t want to talk about it. (I only want to blog about it. You’re welcome, world.) I’m one of only six volunteers in my group to have learned two languages or live in a mixed community, and the only volunteer in the Whole Country to live with a family. When I have to listen to other volunteers bitch about the hardships of choosing between brands of whole grain flour or types of hot sauce, or choosing which of the three enviable supermarkets in their city to shop at, the part of me that isn’t trying to block them out by thinking, “I do not want whole grain flour, I do not want whole grain flour,” dies.

I am pretty sure that I have the same effect on others when I talk about my site or my living situation, and I am also aware of thinking some of the “this place is awesome/beautiful/so clean” bullshit that has pisses me off when people visit me (this never happens, fortunately). It’s easy to ride through someone else’s site on a bus or to spend a couple hours or a day there and to see just the surface – that it is a pretty town, that it is, as opposed to your site, an Actual City, that you don’t see any garbage littering the streets. But I’m pretty sure that if you were to stay there, if you were actually to live there, you would start to realize that your initial impressions weren’t accurate and that you probably pissed off its previous volunteer inhabitant by espousing those early views, loudly and often.

I am pretty sure that I piss off a lot of my fellow volunteers by never shutting up about my host family and how awesome it is to have a family here. And it is awesome, and I do think that I have a far more meaningful and valuable experience here because I have a family, and that every volunteer in Macedonia should be placed with a family. (I’m being obnoxious again.) But some days, like today, even when on the surface it went really well – my little sister told me to come over for lunch, I did, and then unwittingly went off to my mom’s mother’s for an eight-hour na gosti – I just want to live anonymously in an apartment building.

Like, I wish that I hadn’t been woken up at 8:30 this morning by my doorbell ringing, and hadn’t had to crawl back under my covers and hide in case someone looked through my window and saw that my eyes were open, that I was technically awake. I wish that on days when I feel like shit or am tired or am sick I didn’t have to answer the door four or five times and reject coffee or playdate invitations. I wish that my mother wasn’t going to be coming over, starting tomorrow, to begin cleaning my house in preparation for my sister’s wedding in August, when it is such a disaster in here that I just want another week on my own to clean up before I begin to help her with the no doubt more harrowing task of cleaning the Whole House to (very high) Macedonian standards. I wish that I didn’t have to hide all my things – my oil and spices in the kitchen, my photos on the wall, my computer, my shoes, my books – in preparation for said wedding.

I mean, many of these are things that I love when I’m having a good day. Sometimes, most days, it is really awesome to have someone ringing your bell four times a day, or someone telling you to come back in time for dinner because it’s tavche gravche. It’s nice to be walking down the street, like I was yesterday, and have your uncle pick you up when he drives by. But weirdly, after a weekend of telling everyone that it is not stifling to have a host family, that it is just awesome, I feel stifled by having a family. It’s the best thing I have going for me here in D., and usually they are what help me to recover from an otherwise shitty day, but every once in a while I wish they didn’t all know how often I shower, or when I cook, or what I bought at the store.

It is probably more entertaining for me to reread old blogs than anyone else, because I always write dumb things that I only recognize as dumb things about two months later, like when I thought my first host mom’s name was “Gruaja” (that’s “wife” in Albanian), or when I thought I’d be living with an Albanian family in D. I am pretty sure I’ve said before, maybe in the past few weeks, that I’m not lonely in D. I’m not sure what to qualify my current feelings as. It’s not exactly loneliness, because I’m surrounded by people and can go on a coffee or walk with someone every day, but it is an inability to fully or accurately share my experience with anyone – with the Macedonians or Albanians I live and work with, with my family back home, with the staff or volunteers here.

In other news, my mouse has died somewhere (somewhere…) in my house, and I got to briefly see Negotino and Demir Kapija this weekend. I was awed by their beauty and cleanliness.