Monthly Archives: September 2010

Sometimes you don’t know you’re in a honeymoon phase till you exit it


I’ve been in Macedonia for over a year now, which in the early days of my training and service I thought would be kind of a magic time when everything would start going well for me. I would be doing awesome projects at work, I would be well-integrated in my community and struggling to schedule all the coffees people wanted with me, I would be reading like one book a month because of my active life style, I would have lost all the weight I gained during my training and my first few months in Debar, and my bowel movements would always be regular.

Only it turns out things aren’t so much like that, and that, at least for me, there was a kind of honeymoon period lasting after the first week or so in country. Relating to other topics, I like to talk about “Peace Corps goggles,” and I think I had some version of these on until about the day I started working in the classroom again after summer break. For the past year, every time I encountered some trouble (like my language not being so good, or spending more time sitting and watching in the classroom than I wanted, or not being able to get clubs or projects off the ground) I was able to think: “But next year it will be better! Next year I will be better integrated, my language will be better, I will have met every person in my town who is excited to create positive change…”

But there are some things, now, I just don’t feel I have the energy for. I do still spend time with my family, but not on the nearly the level I used to. Instead of three or four or five or even more hours a day, I fit in a quick coffee after work, or just count the time that Ava comes over to hang and play Donkey Kong as my “family time” for the day. Spending hours watching music videos and soap operas doesn’t have the allure it used to, and maybe it’s partly because I’m studying for the GRE and need to have more alone time, but I also find myself thinking, “Well, I’m going to enjoy reading this novel more than I’m going to enjoy watching turbofolk videos…”

My dad compared this to the early stages of marriage. When you get married (so I take it) you want to spend every waking second with whatever person was foolish enough to declare his love for you with a $50,000 wedding featuring every person you’ve ever met. But then time passes, you remember that you like having a couple hours at night to play online poker, or watch Jeopardy, or read, or do the crossword puzzles, and it no longer seems imperative that you spend so much time together. This is pretty much how I feel now.

Of course, Peace Corps being Peace Corps, they sought during training to reassure us that we will have ups and downs and that every volunteer has these. There are certain points of service at which nearly every volunteer finds him or herself brimming with a deadly mixture of self-loathing, pessimism and desire to eat a $4 burrito. The chart Peace Corps showed us looked something like this:

I can only hope, then, that I’m at one of the marked low points. Given that I have more projects in the works than I did at any point in the last school year (more alphabet books! Flat Stanley! School library! Regional spelling bee! Teaching kids to brush their teeth! Teaching students the often incomprehensible rules of English pronunciation!) my poor attitude and desire to crush the idealism of all the new volunteers will hopefully fade soon, erased by the pleasures of, I don’t know, teaching an illiterate third-grader how to write the colors in English.


How We Kill Bugs in the Peace Corps


Last night as I was brushing my teeth and admiring my good looks* I noticed a GFB (that is, a Giant F…ing Bug**) on the wall behind me. More specifically, a GFC (Giant F…ing Centipede).

Now, there are a lot of ways to kill bugs. I believe that some of the more accepted methods are to quickly and painlessly smush them, or to flush them down the toilet.

But if there’s one thing that holds us Peace Corps volunteers together, it’s our sense of creativity. We like to “think outside the box,” as it were, and as such I find it hard to hold to such time-tested methods of killing bugs. Also, this bug was huge and to smush it or flush it down the toilet would have required getting a little closer than I wanted, given my inability to remember from sixth grade science if it’s centipedes or millipedes who are the bad ones.

So, toothbrush in mouth I ran out of my bathroom, kinda lopsidedly since the last thing I wanted was for my head to come within two feet of the centipede. From another volunteer I learned the trick of taping bugs to walls, which effectively immobilizes them and makes clean-up easier than smashing them into my textured walls.

Armed with the packing tape I ran back in the bathroom, cut off a big piece and stood there for about five minutes, repeatedly coming (I swear) within inches of taping the GFC to the wall. “One, two, three… Okay, one, two, three!….Okay, this time I really will…”

But the longer I stared at this GFC the more I realized how big it was. Taping a bug like that to the wall is no easy piece of work. If he made a run for it he could easily touch my hand, or worse.

Toothbrush still in mouth, I ran back out of the bathroom and found a box of band-aids which I dumped out on my coffee table. Armed with this box I ran back into the bathroom and affixed the tape to the box so I could smash/tape the GFC without having to get too close to it.

About this time it occurred to me that this was a pretty large bug and that I might need some additional means of immobilizing it. Lacking Raid, I ran out of the bathroom and got the next best thing, a spray bottle of stove top cleanser.

Take that

Back in the bathroom, after another few minutes of starting at this GFC (sometime in here I did get rid of the toothbrush), I realized that a flimsy band-aid box is no great protection against a bug with so many legs and possibly poisonous teeth, or whatever. So I ran back out, got my dish washing gloves from the kitchen, and thus arrayed returned to the bathroom with my be-taped band-aid box in one hand and stove top cleanser in the other.

With such improved defenses it only took me about a minute this time to actually smash the GFC. But, as is typical of me, I lost my nerve a split-second before hitting the bug and as a result wound up with a few centipede legs attached to my packing tape and a now alarmed GFC landing unnervingly near my foot.

Panicked, I began spraying stove top cleanser after the little f…er (I mean, not so little, but whatever) until I managed to chase him into the depression in the floor where my shower is. I was pretty near to dying myself from all the toxic cleanser fumes I was inhaling, and just as I was beginning to seriously consider that the GFC might not be affected by my attempts to murder him, his motions began to slow.

I think I drowned him.

Armed once more with my bandaid box I smashed him into the tile before throwing away the largest part of his body in my trashcan along with the band aid box and washing his lost legs down the drain.

And that, my dear readers, is how we kill bugs in the Peace Corps. Good thing I am not in Africa.

* I never look better than at 11:30 p.m. while brushing my teeth.

** As part of my effort to be a stand-up sort of volunteer I am trying not to curse on my blog.

Marking Time


It’s been about a year since I came to Macedonia, and I’m pretty sure a post about the innumerable ways in which I’ve changed and grown over the past year is obligatory.* But since I haven’t changed or grown, apart from having a lot more patience with five-year-olds, and particularly with a certain five-year-old who has a palindromic name (perhaps beginning and ending with “a”) I don’t have much to write on that.

(As I’m typing this A. is sitting on my floor playing with my alphabet magnets, trying to match them in pairs, and is singing loudly. And she just explained to me on what days we do and don’t go to school. This is a topic of particular interest today because Bajram begins on Thursday, and we’re not going to have school every day this week.)

I guess that about a year ago I was in Philly for the last time and managed to get sort of lost in Fairmount Park before going for a really, really good beer, the kind that gets even better when you look back on it after a year of almost exclusively drinking Skopso. A year ago, I don’t think I really wanted to come to Macedonia but momentum and a healthy sense of shame carried me forward to staging and a night laying in a hotel room unable to sleep and debating whether my father would drive the three hours back to Washington D.C. to get me and take me home if I pleaded my case in an especially pitiful manner.

I didn’t go to school today because my counterpart told me there wasn’t anything for me to do there. Instead I stayed home and made baklava with my family, then studied for the GRE some, and then sat outside with S. for a while. We figured that I’ve been in Macedonia for about a year now, and that in a couple months I’ll have been in D. for a year. It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long, and even though the next fourteen months seem endless** I’m starting to realize how fast it’s going to go by. I’m also in this new and weird position of thinking not just about what I’m going to do in Macedonia for the foreseeable future, but what I’m going to do when I get back to the states.***

Also, I am thinking about all my one-year dates because the next group of volunteers is coming in a week or less than that, and I am so relieved that I’m done with staging, training, site visit and using a squat toilet for the first time, that I need some forum through which to express that. Right now, I am really happy to be sitting in my house, surrounded by flashcards and Norton anthologies, with a stomach full of tavche gravche, listening to what I suspect is a new mouse chewing through my wall.

* It is not however obligatory that I post this post on the actual one-year anniversary of my arrival here, because I don’t care that much. And then, where will it end? Should I also do “one year since departing the states?” Or “one year living in D.”? Or “one year until I get to go home and drink good beer again”? Maybe that last one.

** This may be due in part to the daisy chain I made with one link for each week I have left in the country.

*** Unless I want to wait until the fall of 2013 to enter grad school, which I guess is an option and would save me from having to spend hours each day sitting on my floor writing flashcards on things like caesura (that’s the audible pause in the middle of a line of Old English poetry) and the neo-classical unities (basically, ideas of time, place and action that you should follow in order to make your writing extremely boring).

Playing With A.: Some Useful Terms


Cleaning My House – I’m starting now to study for the literature GRE, which has led to a significant cutback in playtime. Not to be stopped, A. has taken to organizing everything on my table and “scrubbing” my cupboards and “vacuuming” my floor. As I type this she is picking up everything she put on my floor to clean and putting the books, markers, band aids and other detritus of my life in a variety of interesting and unexpected drawers. She just sponged off the back of J’s wedding invitation, and is now making my bed.

Telephone – Ever since Mere, the volunteer nearest me, accidentally tore A’s ten-denar note in half, A. has had it out for her. Every day she comes over and makes a series of “phone calls” to Mere in order to ream her out. She makes me talk to Mere too. Since learning my mother’s name “Soo-tan” has joined the call rotation. We used to make real phone calls, until I checked my phone bill. The landline has not been plugged in since.

Making Coffee – Since the day she set her hair on fire, A’s coffee has improved. She knows to lean back while she lights the cooker, and now only puts in one spoonful of sugar for each spoonful of coffee (rather than two).

Looking at My Computer – Now she’s leaning on my arm watching me type. And now she’s holding onto my hand and sometimes hitting it to make me type a difyfyerent letter that better sruitsybyuhr8uihythyt78fr7r …better suits heru interesvg

Donkey Kong – I introduced this game as a means of distracting her from another favorite (typing on my computer), but she likes it a little more than I expected.

Animals – This can go in one of two ways. (1) A. and I are walking down the drive, heading for coffee. Suddenly she freezes, points down the drive and whispers, “Ellen – an animal!” at which point I express doubt and continue walking for a minute before I see the animal and run, screaming, back towards her. Then she pulls out her pistols and shoots the animal. (2) One of us runs down the drive and hides. The other walks along, usually speaking loudly about going for a coffee. Whoever is hiding bursts out and starts to eat the carefree coffee drinker. Inevitably, this version also ends up with someone shooting someone else, though it’s hard to tell who will be doing the shooting – usually, A. every game, even when she is an animal presumably lacking opposable thumbs or a knowledge of firearms.

Tag – Just like in America, only we run around yelling “Petch!” instead of “Tag!”

Hide-and-Go-Seek – Since I’m a little taller than A. I don’t have quite as many places I can hide. The result of this is, sadly, that she always beats me in hide-and-go-seek. This is like in America only you when you get back to home base you spit on the wall.

Basketball, Soccer and Volleyball – All three quickly devolve into something in no way resembling the games themselves.

Jail – A. ties my wrists together and puts me in a “jail” from which I then strive to escape. Similar to tag and also to “Animals,” at least in that the game always ends with Ava shooting me.

Doctor – I pretend to die, and A. takes the opportunity to stick me with “needles” (pens, hair pins) while I cry and claim to have made a miraculous recovery.

Hairdresser – Similar to doctor, only now A. is sticking the hair pins into my head rather than my arm.

Traveling – A. takes all my bags, puts a variety of my crap in each of them, and then walks around my house declaring her intentions to travel to Italy. Bon voyage.

Back to School


Today was the first day of the Macedonian school year. I’ve been preparing for about a week now, heading into school to discuss projects with my vice-director, visiting my counterpart to talk about new things I want to try in the classroom, and yesterday running all over town to buy notebooks and prizes for the “English Stars” program I am starting this year, then staying up coloring the students’ cards and organizing the prizes until 10 pm.

All this is by way of saying that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to work in Macedonia. I woke up at 6:30 this morning and although I did not exactly leap out of bed, I was pretty psyched to get in the classroom and get the kids all excited about the stickers, pencils, candy and homework passes they can win from me this year.* Walking to school, I had that special feeling I get every September when I head to school for the first time – like, no matter whether I am in South Jersey on my way to high school, North Jersey on my way to college class** or in Macedonia on my way to the primary school, the air smells and feels a certain way, like all at once I can preemptively experience the aching shoulders, dry eyes, cramping hand and pimples attending any respectable school year.

Instead I went to school, sat in the teacher’s lounge for a little over an hour, listened to a meeting I could only understand bits and pieces of, learned that one of the teachers I wanted to work with this year is no longer at the school, and left with all the other English teachers at 9 am.

The teachers know, for the most part, what grades they will be teaching. But as for actual schedules – no dice. Dear reader, you may be wondering when I’ll get down to the business of actually teaching; I’m wondering the same thing. A week from now? A month from now?

I’ve been in Macedonia almost a year, and was feeling pretty good about my cultural adjustment until, well, about 8:30 this morning, when I realized I wasn’t going to have any work. But no matter how hard I try some things I can’t get used to, like the relaxed attitude torwad work. Even as a Certified Lazy Person, I’m frustrated by what I see as the lack of energy many people put into their jobs. Sure, school starts slow in the States (as it must everywhere), but the teachers come in on the first day knowing their schedules, with books for the students, and knowing what they’ll be doing that day and probably for many days thereafter. Here, the teachers show up on the first day in part to distribute books to the students, but also to begin figuring out just what their schedules will look like. Since some sort of planning has purportedly been going on for a month now, I have a hard time understanding why things aren’t moving faster.

Then I remember that I’m not in America anymore. And frustrating as that was today, tomorrow morning I’ll head into school with my GRE study book, a notebook and my laptop so I can research graduate programs, having exhausted the list of work-related tasks I set for myself a week ago.*** There will be plenty of time for lesson planning in a few weeks.

* I know that bribery is not necessarily a respected teaching method, but if I cannot instill a love of learning at least I can instill a love of doing homework in order to win a Hannah Montana pencil sharpener.

** Indeed, I spread my wings far.

*** No doubt this post is shocking in that I claim to actually do work, rather than just sitting on my sofa eating Pop Keks (or ice cream, in the summer) and crying all day long as I have been implying for the past year.