Monthly Archives: December 2010

My last Christmas in the Makedonija

My last Christmas in the Makedonija

Between traveling around the region running semi-final spelling bees, getting sick, preparing for and running the final spelling bee, putting together a library grant, and getting sick again (in a more thrilling fashion this time, necessitating a visit to Skopje), this has been a long four weeks, so I decided to spend Christmas in Debar napping and making Christmas cookies with A.

Baking with A. is probably as good an introduction to parenting as I will ever get. On Friday she got permission from her mom to go grocery shopping with me, and we went into town to visit the two biggest stores in Debar and buy countless sticks of butter, bags of powdered sugar, and eggs. Yesterday she came over first thing in the morning to ask when we could start making cookies; I held her off until ten am, and in my two “free” hours cleaned dishes and made sugar cookie dough to refrigerate.

So, we listened to Christmas music while we made the batter for chocolate cookies. We had to refrigerate the chocolate batter too because it was pretty thin, and in the meantime rolled out and baked sugar cookies. I put some colored sprinkles in the dough: good decision.

A. liked this part of the day, but abandoned me a little before we finished the sugar cookies so she could eat lunch. When she came back I had started on the chocolate ones (which I topped with a square of Milka bar each, so it would melt and make this nice swirly frosting sort of thing in the middle of each cookie) and she had clearly lost interest in baking, telling me that she wanted to play Donkey Kong and that I never play with her. (Not true.) Finally I shuffled A. off by giving her all the sugar cookies to give to her family, finished the chocolate ones on my own, skyped with my family, tried watching Miracle on 34th Street (not good) and read Bill Bryson’s book on Shakespeare. All in all it was a pretty good Christmas; and today I took the chocolate cookies over to my family’s for lunch, although they say I am going to make them fat.

We overestimated how many cookies we would make, so now I have three bars of butter left in my fridge that I better find something to do with before I leave for vacation. Snickerdoodles?

P.S. As you maybe guessed because I linked to the recipes, both the cookies turned out really well. I had planned to make frosting for the sugar cookies, but out of a combination of laziness and thinking they were good on their own, I didn’t. And the chocolate ones (I adjusted the recipe a little because I didn’t buy a large enough chocolate bar to melt; so threw in a full cup of butter instead of 3/4 cup and about 10 spoons of cocoa powder) were great, kind of cakey. Weirdly the caramel Milka bar, which was delicious when I ate it just melted on a warm cookie, lost its flavor after cooling; but the strawberry Milka held onto its, uh, “flavor integrity.” And my family ate them really, really quickly.

P.P.S. And if the Peace Corps has taught me anything about cooking (besides the usefulness of a coil heater for defrosting food), it’s that whenever a recipe calls for a mixer, you do not need a mixer.


The great spelling bee comes to an end


My fall of spelling bees is finally over. This means many positive things for my life but also for you, dear reader (mom and dad): we can now return to our regular schedule of weekly posts about how I am sitting in front of my heater wearing a hat and gloves; playing Donkey Kong with A.; reading a lot; and wanting to eat burritos. But there’s one last post to be found in the Debar-Mavrovo 2010 Regional Spelling Bee, surely the worst idea I ever had.

As you may have surmised based on my last post, three of the schools we ran semi-finals in did not come to the finals. I’m not going to comment too much on this, but suffice it to say that if I ever went half-insane and decided to do this project again, I would not be returning to those schools. All the others came, though, and we had nearly ninety students in all competing in the bee.

And on the day of, most things went smoothly. We had three volunteers here helping out in addition to me and Mere; but my school’s vice-director, the “coffee lady” and one of the maintenance men were also there all day, in addition to my counterparts Drilona, Lindita and Mirdita. Some of the teachers from Mere’s school also came to do Macedonian translations. Without all of our teachers helping, we couldn’t have pulled this off.

What made me happiest about the day was how well-divided the prizes were. Only one school, which just sent students for the sixth and seventh grades, didn’t place in any of the bees. All the others had students place, and there were first-place winners from three schools (two from my school, in the third and fourth grades, two from Bashkim Vllazerim, the other primary school in Debar, and two from the village Centar Zupa). After doing the semi-final in Bashkim Vllazerim I was terrified that they would sweep the entire bee, but the kids all prepared well and it showed yesterday.

What probably made the bee run as smoothly as it did was that we ran the semi-finals in the same fashion as we planned to the final. The students came in knowing how to pin their numbers on, how to line up, that they could get translations or ask for a word to be repeated. We didn’t find one student with a word list during their competition, or trying to help another student spell a word. Painful as it was to run all the semi-finals like we did, the final would have been a mess without that prep work.

The only bad moment of the day came, unfortunately, during the third grade competition. With all the grades we had the word list students used for the semi-final, and an “emergency” list to be used once we had exhausted all the words from the primary list, or when it became apparent that the students needed harder words. (The finalists for the fifth grade spelled about fifty words each.) Once we exhausted the third grade list I conferred with Mere and my counterpart, we selected the next words we would move on to (words that came from the fourth unit of the students’ book – so, the first unit we hadn’t pulled words from for the primary list). At this point there were only four students left in the competition. Immediately after we gave the next student a word from our emergency list, the father stood up to yell at us for using a word not on the study list; any chance the kid had of spelling the word correctly probably vanished after the two minutes his father spent berating us. We finally got him to quiet down and were able to move on; we had to give the student a different word because his teacher had started sounding out the word (“sixteen”) for him, which caused another round of controversy. He spelled his new word incorrectly, but because the next student in line spelled the word correctly, that student (the angry father one) was eliminated.

Cue more controversy. We managed to finish the bee, but while we tried to write certificates for the winning students, the father came up to the stage and began again. He not only interrupted the competition, but interrupted the awarding of the certificates and prizes to the top three students. I wish that their moment had not been ruined by this…well, this man. I don’t even know how long he yelled at us for, but thankfully Drilona and Mirdita helped to defend us, and finally – after probably about ten minutes – he stalked off with his son in tow.

I wish that this event wouldn’t color my memories of the day too much, because other than this guy things went as well as they could have. My school was great, my counterparts were great, my vice-director was great (he spent three hours helping us make certificates for the bee – a story for another day); but this man kind of ruined it all, and tired as I am it’s hard to get it out of my mind. And it’s unfortunate, but based on my experiences with the other primary school here in Debar – with the teachers and parents, not with the students, who were almost uniformly fantastic – I don’t ever plan to do another multi-school project like this one. The students had a good time and got really into studying for the competitions, but I’m tired of being yelled at by teachers and parents for doing this project.

It has, though, made me appreciate my school a lot more. I have counterparts who never complain about the quality of, say, the flashcards I bring in to school (unlike the teacher who bashed our semi-final certificates), and a vice-director who let me take off for nearly three weeks to run semi-finals, and stayed after school for three hours one night to make certificates with us, and a director who gave me money to buy prizes for the students. I feel lucky to have a school that supported this project, which grew so much bigger than we expected it to.

I’m ready to get back to regular classes, though. I finally went in three days last week, and it was so good to see my students again – I felt like I was home. I’m tired, though, and kind of sick, and finishing up a grant proposal, so I’m planning to give myself a couple days to lay on my sofa reading, and hanging out with A., before I head back to work for real.

Samwise Gamgee, Despair, Spelling Bees


For the last week or so I’ve been reading The Lord of the Rings, usually while humming the soundtrack to The Fellowship of the Ring or listening to it on grooveshark. Over the past year-plus I’ve developed some strategies for coping with the weird stresses of Peace Corps, which are more along the lines of “I don’t feel like I can leave my house because I’ll be recognized by every six- to fourteen-year-old child in my town” than they ever were in the States, but this is the first time I’ve ever tried so desperately to immerse myself in another world. I mean, against all odds I haven’t reread the Harry Potter books since coming here, and only a couple Roald Dahl books, and only a couple of Tamora Pierce books, while is all to say that I’ve kept this fantasy-escapism thing to a limit.

But now, I give up. I am tired from this spelling bee project we are doing, and how just when things seem to be going okay it all falls apart. In the past week I have argued with a teacher about the fairness of eliminating a student, argued with a parent about the rules of the spelling bee, gotten sick, worked on a grant for my school’s library, used more tissues than I thought was possible in a five-day span, slept more than I thought was possible in a five-day span, and stepped in a giant puddle of freezing water. (Today was the first snow.) If it takes Frodo and Samwise Gamgee to get me not wanting to die, I am going to spend every spare minute reading about their trials and tribulations, which are far more significant than mine.

The spelling bee final is this Saturday. I had thought that at this point things would be easy, you know, “all downhill from here.” But instead I’m facing, horrified, four pieces of poster board brought down from Tetovo that I have to turn into posters and signs, getting the bee schedule to all the teachers who need it, finding prizes for the top three students in each class, apologizing to my director for the amount of oil we’ll be using to heat the school for an extra day this week, and the fact that three village schools are probably dropping out from the final because of the cost of transporting students to D.

I know that things in Macedonia tend to happen last minute, that it’s not abnormal for things to fall apart, or appear to fall apart, like this, only to come back together about twelve hours before the deadline. But it’s still disheartening to look at this project and its potential for crushing the dreams of countless students in the D. – M. region – now not only because they might not win the bee, but because they might not be able to come at all. And I try to look at what I’ve done over the past two months, halfway hoping that it was me who messed up – that I didn’t explain properly where the final bee would be held, or how many students from each grade would be invited – because it’s easier for me to think of it being me, just me, who made a mistake, rather than this mess being the result of “That’s the Way it is Here.”

This time, though, it wasn’t me. If you need to find me I’ll be laying in bed, wearing my hat and gloves, reading The Fellowship of the Ring, and trying really, really hard not to think about what else will go wrong between now and four pm on Saturday.

Seven Days of Spelling Bees Down

Seven Days of Spelling Bees Down

What I didn’t mention when I wrote about the spelling bee in Zirovnica were the expectations it gave us for the remainder of our spelling bees. See, in this project I’m working on (a regional spelling bee in the D. – M. – Z. municipalities) almost all of the spelling bees are taking place in villages. It’s only three days that are in here in D; – in my school, and in the town’s other primary school B.E. – and coming out of our thirty-minute spelling bee day in Zirovnica, we thought that with the exception of those three days our spelling bees would be quick and easy.

It feels like about a year ago now, but I am pretty sure that this is about what we were saying when we walked out of my school last Monday, having just completed eight hours of spelling bees. The other bees we had last week were in Gorno Kosovrasti, Mogorche and Zupa, all villages and thus all schools with far fewer students than mine. We expected to be heading into a kifli-filled week (kifli are breads you can buy for 10 denars) but not one that would require a great output of energy on our part.

But if this project has underscored anything, it’s that there’s no use in having expectations. Things have been going about as well as they can, with friendly and helpful teachers and excited students, but our vision of having lots of reading time in afternoons, or that I would have time for Macedonian and Albanian lessons and to work on my school’s library, were as off as could be.

Three of the four bees we ran last week took place in villages thirty minutes from my town, which had us waking up at six am (or earlier) to get to the center in time to catch our kombis. We first went to Gorno Kosovrasti, a village I didn’t even know existed before this bee, where we went to classes with one of the English teachers, F., who was a huge help in preparing his students and then in allowing us to hijack a day of his English classes. (Gorno Kosovrasti is “High Kosovrasti,” a village about 4 kilometers up a mountain from the village I have for the past year been calling simply Kosovrasti – actually Dolno Kosovrasti, or “Low Kosovrasti.”)

On Thursday we went to Mogorche, a village that’s also thirty minutes from D. Another village I didn’t know existed before we started this regional bee, but my baba’s family comes from Mogorche and as A. has told me, she went there one day and ate some kifli. (This is, really, the only way she describes the village. I told her we went to Mogorche and she looked at me blankly until I said, “Remember, you told me you went there and ate kifli?” After that she knew what I was talking about.) In Mogorche we went to classes with U., another helpful English teacher with a class of sixth graders that will prove a major challenge to my students at the final. (One of the “problems” of running a regional spelling bee being that I am, kind of, a little bit, rooting for my own students to win.)

Our day in Mogorche lasted from our 7am combi to about 6:30pm, when we got home. We spent the full day in Mogorche, running spelling bees in the morning and then shifting over to “practice bees” in the afternoon with the younger students, who won’t actually be coming to the final bee in D. After we got back to Debar we had to go to the copy shop to print two hundred more participation certificates and about seventy-five first-, second- and third-place certificates, a task that proved exhausting to me (as I was looking forward to collapsing on my sofa, where I would go on to write a string of incomprehensible emails to people back home in an effort to not fall asleep at 7:30pm) but of interest to the awesome women in the library store, since some of their own kids are competing in the semi-final we’re running in D.’s other primary school.

On Friday we hit Zupa. This is yet another village located about thirty minutes from D. (that seems to be the only kind), that just a week ago got its own Peace Corps Volunteer. After a week of surprises that included eleven-hour days, doubled fifth-grade classes (leaving us little option but to bring a whole ton of fifth-graders to the final on the eighteenth), being unable to reconcile our schedules with the surprisingly long day in Gorno Kosovrasti (which means I’ll be headed back there next week to finish the bees with the third through fifth grades), and other unpleasantries like very, very early combis and monsoon-like weather, we were bracing ourselves for Zupa. The teacher I’m in touch with there, N., told us to arrive around 10:30am, but we wound up at the school closer to 10. The teachers brought the students together and, man, was it a well-oiled machine. As we finished with one grade’s bee the next was coming in, printing their names on the sign-up list while we made the winners’ certificates. The students were amazing and had clearly practiced a lot, and we finished up with all six grades at about 12:30. It was a good way to end our long week.

This is, now that I look back on it, probably a pretty dull post for anyone not intimately involved with these spelling bees. But I want to keep track of the whole thing in some way, and I imagine that I will feel as exhausted every day this week as I did last, so my only option is to sum the whole past week up in a post like this, rather than waiting for inspiration to strike.

When this is all over I’ll have spent ten days doing spelling bees in schools in or around D. and Rostuse. We’ll be bringing the best students from each school together on December 18th for the final competition, and before then I have to head out with my counterpart and buy prizes for the students, make emergency word lists and line up our Albanian translators, while finishing the semi-finals and working on a grant due just after the final. It’s been over a week since I’ve been to classes in my school, and I’m dying to get back to run English Clubs and see my students again.

For a project that, at conception, Mere and I didn’t think would be any big thing (we were planning originally, I think, to do bees just in Rostuse, Trebiste, Zupa, Kosovrasti and the two primary schools in D.; Gorno Kosvrasti, Mogorche and Zirovnica were added later) this has turned into a huge and sometimes overwhelming project that I’m eager to finish with. But hey! At least when I write to Peace Corps Washington come time for my next report I can claim to have carried off a major project; and I’ve also had the pleasure of high-fiving students in three municipalities in Western Macedonia.

To end this post in a sloppy fashion: in time I’ll get up photos that are better. Neither Mere nor I have been doing major photographer duties at any of our spelling bees (and I’ve left most of the photos to Mere), so I don’t have great ones; those will probably come after the final bee.

I’m also now under the one-year mark on my service. I’d been anticipating this date for a while, but it slipped by without me noticing. It’s only these past couple days that I’ve been thinking about it. A.’s taken to every day asking how much longer I am going to be here; and my baba’s been telling me that A. cannot live without me, bringing me to the unsettling thought that I don’t know if I can live without A., either. Le le.