Monthly Archives: April 2011

Things I’ve Forgotten How to Do

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I’ve learned a lot of new things in the Peace Corps (how to kill mice, how to speak Albanian, how to speak Macedonian, how to wear high heels all winter long – well, maybe not the last) but sometimes I feel as though I’m mostly forgetting things. Tonight I tried to use paypal to pay $3 to download a magazine to read on my laptop, only it turns out that all my banking information has changed since I’ve entered the Peace Corps. My parents have moved, changing my home address; my credit card has changed; my checking account has changed. This is the sort of thing that sends up a red flag at paypal headquarters, so they froze my purchase. In America I probably would have straightened this out but here I just stared at my “frozen account” email for a minute before closing the screen and finding some chocolate, because I no longer have any idea how to solve even the most minor of banking problems.

In January, when I was about to leave for my trip to Egypt, Jordan and Israel, I had to call my bank to tell them that I’d be on a trip and to please not freeze my account while I was traveling. Only, my parents had just moved and I couldn’t remember their address, but I tried and failed to give it to the woman anyway; then I tried to give her my family’s old address but couldn’t remember either the street name or zip code of the address I lived at for roughly seventeen years, and then I tried to give her my old address in Philadelphia but I couldn’t remember that either, and when I tried to sell her my sob story about how I was in the Peace Corps and hadn’t even spoken English in months she told me to call back when I could offer some information that I actually, you know, had ever banked with them. (I got my mom to call them for me.)

Other things I’m pretty sure I’ve forgotten how to do: write cover letters; write resumes; use craigslist to find apartments that aren’t so creepy they make me want to cry; order coffee from a Starbucks imitator; drive; use the self-checkout at a supermarket; use any part of a supermarket; cross streets; ride a bicycle; buy train tickets; use gym equipment.

I’ve got six or seven months left so it’s a good time to think about these things. But one day soon I’ll write something about all the things I’ve learned here – and man, I bet you are looking forward to that!

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I miss….the forty-hour week

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Here in Macedonia, I don’t work a forty-hour work week. I don’t work anywhere close to a forty-hour work week. Even when I’m going in to school early to goof around making lesson materials on my laptop or organizing library books, or staying late to run English clubs, I top out at about twenty-five hours. A more typical week is fifteen to twenty hours, and a week like this one – when I’m sick, but unaccountably so (ie, I tell people I’m sick, but it’s not like it makes a real difference – I don’t have to request the time as sick leave or produce a doctor’s note, I just have to lay on my sofa watching Judd Apatow movies and napping) – I’ll probably end up working ten or eleven hours.

Growing up, I gave my parents a lot of grief about their jobs because the one thing I was sure of was that I was never going to work a forty-hour week. I was never going to work in an office. Instead, I was going to be a writer, which on the best days means staring at a wall tapping a pen against a notepad, or sitting in front of a laptop with a blank Word document open behind some celebrity gossip sites. Still an appealing image, but what the style of work here in Macedonia has helped me realize is:

I want the forty-hour work week.

A few months ago I was in one of the cities here, Tetovo, and another volunteer asked what hours we’d prefer, without amendments like “…if it’s a job I love” or “…if I hate the job.” Flat-out, forty hours a week or fifteen? And we all chose forty, which surprised me for a minute, until it didn’t because – that’s what we’ve been raised with. Work is so central to who we are, to how we define ourselves and structure our days, in America, that to not work forty hours a week is almost crippling.

Exhibit A: When I was a senior at Rutgers I loaded my schedule with as much stuff as I could. I don’t remember why exactly I did this anymore – I think it started around July or August because I was bored and watching Law & Order all day and came to realize that wasn’t healthy – but I signed up to work maximum hours at the campus tutoring center, 15 hours a week, picked up a job at a branch of the campus bookstore, 9 to 15 hours a week, on top of a 12-credit thesis, two seminars, a graduate English course, and five other assorted classes. I have no idea how much coffee I drank that year, I have no idea how I managed to wake up and get out the door at 9 a.m. for my first tutoring session of the day, go for twelve hours, and then go to the library when I finished work and class at 9 p.m. But I did it, I got everything done on time, I improved my GPA, I still managed to drink beer occasionally (sometimes while writing papers and sitting on my bed, whatever) and I felt like I had a direction, at least till May when jobs and classes wound down and I realized I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life.

Exhibit B: The regional spelling bee I ran with another volunteer in November and December was, truly, one of the most miserable and tiring periods of my life, and I remain convinced that it’s what crushed my immune system and led to me getting a wacky lesion in my esophogaus, the flu two times, and countless colds and respiratory infections this winter. But when we were running semi-finals we were busy for full American-style workdays, if not longer, with barely the energy to make dinner or turn on a movie or keep our eyes open at the end of the day. When the bee was over I had no idea what to do with myself and the expanses of free time I had and I almost missed being yelled at by the parents and teachers of crying students all over the west side of Macedonia.

Exhibit C: Last summer I didn’t have any work. Apart from a trip to Greece, Camp GLOW, a visit from my parents, and my host sister’s wedding (which we’ll generously call in at one month) I didn’t have anything to do or anywhere to go, with the result that I did things like: eat Pop Keks instead of meals; read five young adult novels in one day; watch the entire first season of Glee in a few days; kill my internet bandwidth in the first week of a month; nap; walk to the prodav to buy a bottle of mineral water; confirm that my local friends were all still on vacation; lay on the floor while my host sisters played on my computer; read John Grisham novels; nap. It was miserable, and now that I think of it that’s probably what this summer is going to look like, only minus Camp GLOW, the wedding, and the visit from my parents.

I’m not saying that I love the forty-hour work week or the way that we Americans tend to center our lives on work, but I am starting to realize that there are some cultural differences I’ll never be able to get over. As shocked as my counterparts at the school are when I tell them that I worked forty hours a week at the job I held before coming here, I’m shocked that they consider a fifteen-hour week a workweek. If I had children and husbands to take care of like most of them do, I’d probably embrace the shorter workweek, but as it is I miss having somewhere to be from 8 to 5 everyday. As my dad observed when we spoke recently, what I disliked about the office job I held in Philly wasn’t that I was working regular hours or in an office; it was that I didn’t have enough work to do and was bored all day. The best weeks of that job came after I gave my notice and had to spend all day running around tying everything up, because for the first time I didn’t have any free time.

Peace Corps is about adjusting to another culture, of course, and part of that is in adjusting to the very different styles of work in other countries; but I think it’s also about finding ways to incorporate comfortable degrees of your own culture into your daily life. When I’m working the same hours as my counterparts (15 hours) I get lazier and lazier, until it’s a miracle if I even get outside to see my family; but if I put in more hours, find excuses to head in to school and spend five or six hours there goofing off or running extra lessons, I’m a lot happier and more likely to visit with my friends and neighbors after work. What I’ve got to do now is find a way to keep that sense of “doing stuff” going through the summer.

Life Updates: Meh to Good

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It’s been a long time, again, since I’ve posted. It’s fully spring here, and this year I learned to do things like take allergy medicine so I don’t spend the entire season laying in bed all day apart from work. My family’s put up a gate to keep dogs out of our compound, which I’m psyched about. I’ve been playing football and basketball with A. and she yells at me every time I steal the ball from her. She’s pretty good. Her English is getting fantastic, too – every time we great each other now we say “Hello” and I ask her what’s up and she tells me, “Nothing!” She can answer questions like “Do you like cats? Do you like dogs? Do you like your mother? Do you like me?” and sometimes I’ll throw some other sort of question at her – like “Do you want to play?” – and she’ll answer correctly. I am amazed at how quickly kids pick up on languages. She’s even writing in English some. A couple weekends ago she came over and drew toys and animals while I made cookies, then I told her how to write their names.

I’m still working mostly with my co-worker L., and things are going well there. I have to be honest: I’ve given up on a lot of the “big and important” goals of my service. Early on I expected to do a lot of things like improve classroom management and cut out cheating on tests and homework, but I’ve settled into just having fun with the kids. There are plenty of reasons for this, some better than others. The big ones are that there’s not a lot of interest from my co-workers in making significant changes in the way they manage their classrooms, and that I’ve come to accept I’m not a natural teacher, I don’t have a history of teaching, and my own experience and skills are so limited that I don’t know where to begin implementing those types of major changes. With L., though, we’ve made some small and fun changes. At the beginning of every class teachers in Macedonia write their lessons down in “the big red book”, as I think of it. This can take anywhere from a minute to ten minutes – okay, usually not one minute – and it’s wasted time that the kids use to either sit around or copy each other’s homework. Since I started working with L., I’ve been doing small warm-up games with the kids while she goes through the book and prepares for the lesson, like Hangman or Simon Says. The students go nuts for these games. Every time I walk into a room I’m greeted with, “Oh, teacher! Teacher! Simon says, please, Simon says!” and I even hear this refrain while I’m walking around town, and sometimes walk into a room to find the students playing their own games of Hangman. Because I pretend not to understand when they pronounce the letters as they would in Albanian, they have also gotten really, really good with the English alphabet.

I’m still running English Club for the sixth-graders every week, and last week did the first session with the fifth-graders. It’s near the end of the year so it’s all games now: sometimes ones like Jeopardy to review lessons, but also ones like Simon Says and Heads Up Seven Up. Again, I don’t know that this is necessarily what I was sent halfway around the world to do, but I got tired of feeling frustrated and useless by not implementing major changes; I am trying now to just relax and enjoy the time I have with my students.

What else? We’re supposed to be doing this library project at my school, but I’ll leave writing about that for another day – when I know whether the project is going to happen or not. We won a grant in February but after a couple months of trying to get something going on this (trying even to get my school to contact the organization with the school’s banking information – the one part of the project I cannot do myself, the one part of the project they need to take some initiative on) I’m trying to chill out and let it be what it is, which may be nothing. I am all negative about this project now, and I don’t want to be, but… well, I think my life would have been a little better if I’d never mentioned this grant application to my school.

The national spelling bee is coming up. I’m going to helping another volunteer with the semi-final in her village. Today I visited a village about thirty minutes from D. to talk to the director and English teachers about running a semi-final in their school. They participated in our regional spelling bee and did a fantastic job preparing their students, although it came with a bit of attitude. I was reminded of this today when they started asking me what the certificates would look like – if they would be “quality”, unlike the ones we spent 2000 denars (about $50) printing up for our regional semi-finals in November – but I’ve learned how to smile through things I would have flipped out over in the states, so I sat there, smiled, scheduled a date for the semi-final bee, then raced outside to wait for the kombi home. We’ll also be running a semi-final in my school (of course) and hopefully in the other primary school in my town.

And…that’s about it. I’m fairly content with what things are now, but there are occasional unsettling reminders that I’m not here for that much longer. My host mom S. started talking to me last week about whether they would be putting another volunteer in our town – because she doesn’t want to host another one, though her husband does. I think she meant this in a good way for me, that I’ve worked out pretty well and get along well with them and let them do their thing, and that made me happy in a weird sort of way. They’re good people and every once in a while I’m reminded of how lucky I am to be living with them. Unlike so many other people I know around here, they never bug me about how I should go out at night and not read so much and marry a local; they just let me be who I am and sometimes make requests for my near-weekly baking sessions with A. It made me really happy when S. said about the same thing about me – that I accept them for who they are, and that she doesn’t want to get another volunteer who might not be that way. It’d be hard to overstate how excited I am to be home in eight months, but some days I still can’t bring myself to think of my first day without A. yelling at me to come outside and play.