Monthly Archives: January 2011

On Not Giving Up


After writing about my vacation I started scrolling back through my old entries and reading, horrified, about the spelling bee. I am still glad this project is behind me, but I’m remembering now that I didn’t write about everything having to do with the bee. I wrote, a lot, that my school was a huge help, but I was too exhausted/sick all last month to write about making the certificates for the final bee, which will give you about as good an example as there is of how lucky I am to be working where I’m working. Also, that Albanians are a heck of a lot more persistent than most Americans I know.

Meredith (the other volunteer working on this project) had made the certificates for the semi-final winners, so we agreed that I would do the certificates for the final. But owing to a string of events/character traits (my laziness, illness, writing a grant for my school that was due right after the final, having the terrible Open Office instead of Microsoft Word), I didn’t get this done.

Mere came in to town the day before the bee began so we could handle any last-minute things that came up, and print out the certificates I hadn’t made. She designed them for me (thanks, Mere) and we went to my school at four to print them out on the special glossy paper my school’s vice-director had bought for us.

We didn’t get into the office until about quarter to five because the director and vice-director were doing classroom observations. When we opened the certificate files on the vice-director’s computer, the partially transparent image (of a giant bee, of course) in the certificate background was no longer transparent, necessitating some panicked redesign so the image would end up solid and centered, rather than acting as a background.

This done, we printed a certificate on the color printer. It wasn’t bad, if a little discolored, so we went ahead with printing some more; but the printer stopped working. Flashing red lights on the printer, error boxes popping up on the computer telling us that the printer was out of two colors of ink, and rising panic levels since it was now after five pm.

But still, an easily solvable problem if we just abandoned the dream of having first-, second- and third-place certificates in color. We shifted over to the black-and-white laser jet printer, printed one certificate that turned out well, and went ahead to print the rest of the first-place certificates.

The second one came out okay, a little weird and smudged, but all hell broke loose by the time we got to the third copy, which was smeared beyond recognition. We yanked the rest of the papers from the printing tray, staring at the results of our hard work (one kind-of color copy, one nice black & white, one smudged, one horror show certificate) and trying to understand how and why this was happening to us.

Well, because the paper was glossy and in the laser jet the ink smeared right off onto the roller, where it would smudge across the next certificate. Duh.

We’d been at it for about 45 minutes at this point, and Mere and I were both ready to give up and walk to the local copy shop to run off certificates, but my vice-director B. wouldn’t have it. He called the library supply store to order more ink cartridges for the color printer, and said they would be delivered to the school in about 15 minutes. While we waited, he told us we could print everything we needed, so we ran off word lists, participation certificates, and competition rules until the cartridges arrived as promised.

B. put the new cartridges in the printer. Six pm, flushed with the idea of our impending success and going home to have a beer (a terrible idea, since the bleeding lesion in my esophagus was well established by this point), we put a sheet of glossy paper into the printer, hit “print” and….saw a flashing error message on the computer screen.
Wrong type of toner.

B. pulled the toners out, shook them, compared them to the older toner in the printer, concluded they looked exactly the same, and reinstated all the toners. We tried to print again. Again, nothing. After ten minutes of hitting “print” to no avail, B. called the store again, explained what was going on, and asked them to bring more toner.
Twenty minutes later the man was back with two plastic bags of toner. They dug through for about ten minutes, until finding the suitable toner. The delivery guy left, B. put the new toner in the printer, we were again relieved that we would be getting home pretty soon, and there was again an error message proclaiming that the toner was not the right sort of toner.

B. kept playing around with the printer while Mere and I tried to organize our massive stack of word lists in rules (which were all in Macedonian, Albanian and English). It was about seven by this time, and finally I asked B. if it wouldn’t be easier for Mere and me to run to the copy shop and try making the certificates there.

He checked his watch. “Too late.”

At this point I was in complete despair. Keep in mind, too, that I had a giant bleeding lesion in my chest (though I didn’t know it at the time) and that every time I breathed, let alone held in my panicked sobs and weepy vows to never again run a regional spelling bee, it felt like someone was stabbing me.

It is hard to keep exact track of time at this point in the night. I was hungry, and both Mere and I were near to slumping over our printouts and dying on the spot. B. went to the closet and found an unused color printer (seriously, where do these things come from?) that we thought would save us until we all figured out we didn’t have any toner for the printer. He made some more phone calls and then, as if out of nowhere (or as if summoned by the vice-director’s mobile), the gym teacher appeared with his color printer under one arm.

The gym teacher hooked the printer up to B.’s laptop and Mere and I shifted desks. Slipped one sheet of paper into the printer, expecting a jam, smeared certificate, or error message; but it worked. For thirty minutes we printed the certificates one by one, checking them for smeariness levels and laying them out to dry so we wouldn’t accidentally smear them.

Around eight o’clock we finished. And the best part? While we were printing the certificates, B. and the gym teacher were fussing around with the other color printer. And fixed it.


Vacation : Crushed


When last I wrote I was a broken woman. Sick three times in one month, ending my gigantic/stupid spelling bee project by being yelled at by one of the competitor’s fathers, remembering what winter is like in Debar (cold).

But then I got to go on vacation, and it was awesome, and now if I am not exactly recharged for the school year I am at least excited for something again (more traveling!).

I spent about two weeks visiting Israel, Jordan and Egypt with two other volunteers here. We did Israel and two nights in Amman, Jordan on our own, then joined a tour group for eight nights in Jordan and Egypt.

Again, it was awesome.

The trip started with a long haul across the country to Delchevo, near the Bulgarian border, then a taxi ride to the Sofia airport where we caught our flight to Istanbul. After learning we’d have to buy $20 visas just to exit the airport for a few hours we killed ten or eleven hours in the airport, drinking Starbucks, then beer, then eating, then eating some more, before getting our flight to Amman around midnight. This got us to our hotel at three a.m., where the proprietor was sleeping on a sofa waiting for us.

You can buy PopKeks in Amman, too!

We slept till, I don’t know, two or three the next afternoon, waking up only to head into the city center, get confused trying to find a place to eat, then finding the best restaurant ever and loading up on mango and guava juice, hummus, “mutable eggplant” and Turkish coffee.


The next day we took a taxi to the Allenby border crossing to Israel. About five hours after leaving our hotel we were in Jerusalem, found our hostel, and went on a hunt for what one of the guys at the hostel promised would be the best falafel, ever. Sidetracked by a microbrewery, free shots of Jameson, edamame and french fries, we found the falafel place a few hours later. It was really, really good falafel. We walked around the city at night, enjoyed more good beers, and….well, that pretty much describes our time in Jerusalem, spent largely in search of the next bagel/falafel/beer/pad thai/shot of Jameson. It has been, let me explain, a long, long time since I have seen a bagel or a decent beer. That Jerusalem gave me my first tofu in a year and a half will leave me with fond memories of Israel for the rest of my life, whatever I think of the country’s politics.


After three nights in Jerusalem we headed back to Amman, slept, then went back to our favorite restaurant to spend another $9 on huge/delicious meals before meeting our tour group at six p.m. On our first night with the rest of the group I couldn’t really understand anyone (the whole group apart from us was from Canada or Australia because we booked with an Australian company, Intrepid) and spent a fair amount of time doing the “Macedonian head bobble” in response to indecipherable sentences.

(From here on assume that everything I write about this trip is followed by “And it was awesome.”)

We hit up the Dead Sea, which it turns out you don’t want to get in either your mouth or your eyes, saw a Crusader castle, debated the living situations of Peace Corps Jordan volunteers, and spent our second night in Petra, where I prepared for my reenactment of Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade. Petra itself was amazing, and a lot bigger than I had imagined. Even Indiana Jones could not prepare me for the scope of this place.


The next day we drove to Wadi Rum, climbed a giant sand dune, then a natural stone bridge, which I managed to summit (ha, ha) but where I would have been forced to remain until the end of my days if Sarah and Osama, our tour leader, hadn’t each taken me by one arm and practically dragged me down. We spent the night in a Bedouin camp. Travel advice: if you are going to a Bedouin camp in the middle of Wadi Rum in the middle of January, bring your sleeping bag.

Then on to Aqaba, where we caught a ferry to Egypt and two nights in the Sawa Beach Camp. This may sound uncultured but, whatever. Sitting around on a beach for two days was definitely the best part of the trip, probably in part because it was followed by climbing Mt. Sinai, Coldest F—ing Place in Egypt.

I did not last long on top of the mountain

Mt. Sinai was the second night of the trip I spent shivering under my covers, trying in vain to find a warm pocket of air without distubing my elaborate dress of t-shirt/cardigan/hoodie/jacket/scarf (that is, exactly what I wore when climbing Mt. Sinai). In part from sleeping in my clothes for two nights and in part because many hotels/beach huts in Egypt don’t provide towels, I was feeling good on our nine hour drive to Cairo, or as I prefer to think of it, Falafel City. (I ate six falafels and five falafel balls, some of which I turned into additional sandwiches, in our two nights there. It’s good to know I’ve still got it, whatever “it” is.)

On the last day of our tour we visited the pyramids, where I took a number of respectful photos and nearly had a freak-out while inside one of the pyramids. (Why I don’t pay greater heed to my fear of heights and enclosed spaces is beyond me.) But then I ate a lot of falafel, went to the “mummy museum,” ate some more falafel, and bade a tearful farewell to the other members of our tour group who were continuing their travels. Somehow I resisted the urge to abandon my Peace Corps service to spend two more weeks traveling in Egypt, spent a day shopping in the market, and caught our 3 a.m. flight from Cairo to Istanbul, then onward to Sofia, Delchevo, Skopje, Gostivar and, at long last, home.

I always used to think it was so lame when people took these types of photos...but once at the pyramids, the urge is irresistable.

2010 in Review


So, I’ve closed out the only full calendar year I’m going to see in Macedonia. New Year’s and the attendant powerful firecrackers/my fear that one of my siblings would lose an eye, or worse, are gone. This has been a weird past month to close out the year, and the not the best; I keep getting sick (three times. Three times.), and last night just couldn’t do it, so came back to my house to fall asleep after a couple hours with my family.

Still, I guess I got some stuff done this past year.


* Made alphabet books with 37 of the third-graders (spring 2010)
* Ran a school spelling bee (June 2010)
* Worked as an instructor at Camp GLOW (July 2010)
* Started the “English Stars” program for the fourth- and fifth-graders at my school; it’s mostly now done by my co-workers since I’ve hardly been in school for months (September 2010)
* Began working on building a school library of English books (fall 2010 – present)
* Ran regional spelling bees in nine schools, and a final spelling bee with the winning students from the regionals (November – December 2010)
* Applied for a grant for my school’s library (December 2010)


* Visited Albania & Greece
* Parents visited
* My host sister J’s wedding
* Taught my sister Z. how to make an American “cake” (a giant chocolate chip cookie)
* Made baklava
* Made yufki
* Took the GRE subject test
* Made Christmas cookies with A.
* Got sick a lot

I guess this stuff is okay. I’m leaving on vacation in a couple days, so I’m trying to pack and get things ready for that, and I also promised A. we would make more cookies today. (Trying to use up all the butter I bought for the Christmas cookies.) Sitting here breathing through my mouth, I am really, really relieved that this year is over. Something about the spelling bees took it out of me; I got sick during the semi-finals and haven’t really felt normal since then, heading from a major cold straight into a bizarre bleeding lesion in my insides (which I chose to ignore because we were dealing with the final spelling bee and I was trying to finish the grant; good choice), straight into the flu.

It’s the illness and tiredness talking, but right now I’m exhausted of Macedonia and my work here. I should come back from vacation recharged, because I have a lot going on in the spring. There’s this Model UN thing I was tricked into doing, a Flat Stanley project, doing the alphabet books with this year’s third graders, starting English Clubs back up, deciding whether I want to do my adult ESL class again, a schoolwide reading program… but right now, I’m tired and pretty happy/hopeful that this time next year I should be celebrating New Year’s in the states.