Monthly Archives: June 2011

How to Make a Counterfeit Passport


I’m going to America this week, which means I’ve had to take on some grueling tasks like using all the butter in my fridge, getting my parents to talk the clerks at the liquor store into special ordering my favorite beer (it turns out, “She is in the Peace Corps and is coming home for the first time in two years and this is the ONE beer she wants us to buy” is an effective argument), looking at photos of burritos, and on Sunday hanging out with A., who is upset that I am leaving her for nearly a whole month.

While we were making brownies she asked if she could come to America with me. I figured this was about the same as us playing “travel to Italy/Canada/Albania/America” pretty much every day last summer, said sure, realized too late I had made a mistake, then spent most of the afternoon trying to keep her from realizing the plan was a sham. When she got worried that not having a passport would make it hard for her to travel I made her one out of construction paper, which she then showed off to her entire family. She made me walk down the street to find her dad and ask if it was okay for her to come to America; when I showed him the passport he said, “If she has a passport, of course!”

All day I knew this would end badly, but I couldn’t think of a way of backing out without sending A. into tears and making her hate me for at least the evening. She took one of the plastic bags I’m packing my things in up to the balcony where she ran a fashion show of sorts, holding up clothes and packing the ones I said would be good for America. (She even packed her special white dress, “for your brother’s wedding”, which is not actually happening this summer.) My host mom, her aunt, foreseeing the same awful conclusion to the day as me, tried to talk her down (“They’ll think Ellen’s kidnapping you, you have different last names, they’ll put her in jail, and then you’ll be in America all by yourself and you won’t be able to see your sister who is visiting when Ellen is in America.”), which sent A. into a breakdown until we backed down and said, okay, okay, she could go.

There were some priceless moments in here, like when S. told A. that at the airport they put a stamp in your passport AND on your forehead, and that when we flew over the house we would have to hang a rope from the airplane so the whole family could climb up and let go over my parents’ apartment, but…you know, they were all overshadowed by my fear of what would happen when A. realized that she couldn’t come. She came to my house a few times Sunday night, asking if I’d called my parents yet to ask permission for her visit. Then, finally, around nine o’clock, she rang my doorbell, asked if I’d asked my dad yet, then, not looking into my face, started to apologize. “Ellen, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but I can’t come to America, I just realized…” (I won’t reveal what she just realized, but like any six-year-old, she’d figured out there are some things she wouldn’t feel comfortable having me and my parents help her with, in America.)

Saved! Only problem is, on Monday she told me she would come, because she was worried I would be too sad she couldn’t come – and I had to spend the afternoon convincing her that it would be okay for her to stay in Macedonia.


The Risks of a Cross Breeze


For the past week I’ve had a pinched nerve in my back, which for now means that I’m learning to sleep on the floor and trying not to cry (even more than usual) every time I am squatting over a pot of water to wash my hair. My family has noticed, mostly because every time they knock on my door or try to get me to do something I say, “I can’t! My back hurts!” True, but I may have made an error in letting them in on this.

Macedonians believe in promaja (pronounced pro-mai-ya), a deadly cross breeze that as far as I can tell can be blamed for any and all ailments but is especially likely to cause facial paralysis and back problems. I admit that I can’t entirely let go of American superstitions (I know that opening an umbrella indoors won’t cause any harm but I still have to look away when I see someone do this at work; I won’t walk under a ladder), but I know that they’re superstitions, that no harm is ever going to come to me because a black cat happens to walk in front of me.

Only, promaja isn’t a superstition, it’s a fact. I might think that the reactions to promaja, like not opening the windows to an un-air-conditioned kombi on a sweltering summer day, are more harmful than promaja itself, but my landlords are sure that promaja is the cause of my recent back troubles. Not, say, that I somehow wrenched my back out of shape on my six hours of kombi rides last Monday, then aggravated it by exercising, enthusiastically, for the following four days.

I’m taking “medicinal” Macedonian-speed walks daily, and on my way out this morning my baba and mother stopped me. My baba started telling me about the risks of promaja, running her hand along the left side of her face (facial paralysis), and then they counted up the windows I have open. Which is two: one in my kitchen and one on the second floor. (Can open windows on separate floors of a house really create this deadly cross breeze?)

For now I’m managing to nod along when my family tells me about promaja, but if I have to hear it one more time I fear I’m going to explode and tell them, “There’s no such thing as promaja! A slight breeze will not paralyze your face! Your back troubles are due to genes, lifestyle, something, but not promaja!” It’ll be nice to get back to America, where we only believe in things that are real, like fan death.