On how I can love and hate everything about being here

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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.

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