Monthly Archives: August 2011

Things I’ve Learned in the Peace Corps


Sometimes it’s easy for me to forget that I’ve actually learned a lot in the last two years – that, for instance, I can now understand when a storekeeper says to me, “That ice cream’s 40 denars, I only charged you 30 yesterday by mistake.” It’s not until I found myself throwing toilet paper in trash cans when I visited my family in July that I began to think I’ve changed in some pretty basic/instinctual ways and have learned a couple of things.

  1. Kids can tell if you want to be around them, and they’ll be better for you if you’re having fun. This realization turned my sixth-grade English Club into the most fun thing we did last year – when I realized it was okay to let my kids see that I’m human. Also that I have an endless supply of Silly Bandz.
  2. Kids will do almost anything for Silly Bandz or Beanie Babies.
  3. Third- and fourth-graders are the best, because they are so eager to learn and take seriously little things you throw together. When I started helping my teachers run English Stars last fall, I never would’ve guessed that eight months later our students would still be pulling their star-stickered notecards out of their books at the start of every class.
  4. You shouldn’t lie to kids…like that time I told A. she could come to America with me and told her that the passport I made for her was real. I need to keep this in mind as I prepare to move to Albania; I’ve already found myself starting to say, “You can come with me!” a couple times, only to rapidly correct to “I’ll visit you.”
  5. I know how to use squat toilets now. I even wish there were more of them – like, say, if the Skopje bus station changed all of its Western-style toilets to squatters. Soooo much cleaner.
  6. How to defend against mice: no mercy. Humane mouse traps don’t work. Putting all your food in jars doesn’t work. Hoping that the mice will move out when the weather improves doesn’t work. The only things that work? Poisoning, drowning, and gluing the mice to death. (I guess the last should actually read “letting my baba stomp on a mouse I’ve caught with a glue trap.”)
  7. It’s never a good idea to stock up on six months’ worth of basmati rice, because moths and other weird bugs will move into the bags before I can use it. (And rice, and cereal, and spices…) Nothing defends against the bugs like glass jars – as I discovered when I opened a yogurt tub of rice to find baby moths crawling around in it.
  8. How to lead the oro: I do this really badly, but I can do it. I never want to do it again, but I will if I have to. Because now, whenever they want to relive my host sister’s wedding, my family will get to see my goofy, sweaty self as I struggle to lead the dance, staring at my sister’s mother-in-law’s feet to get the steps right, and there’s something comforting in knowing that.
  9. How to speak Albanian and Macedonian: really poorly, I sometimes think, but for well over a year and a half now I’ve been able to have conversations in both languages. It is always exciting for me when someone hears my broken Albanian and wants to know my “family name” and when my parents moved to the States.
  10. Time can go really quickly. I’ve learned patience for the times when it doesn’t, though.

How COS feels like graduating college


I just came back from my COS conference. For those of you who are not Peace Corps Volunteers, obsessive researchers of the Peace Corps, or parents of Peace Corps Volunteers, “COS” stands for “close of service.”

Somehow, I have made it to my COS, or at least to the part where we have a lottery to choose our COS dates (anywhere between late October and late November). Only I didn’t even do that – because I’m doing a Fulbright or, as I like to think of it, an “extended Peace Corps service in a different country with better pay,” and need to be in Albania in October, my date has been set for a while. It’s October 27th, if you were wondering.

Even though I know (kind of) what I’ll be doing until July 2012, I feel like I’m graduating college all over again. Suddenly I have to think about things like health insurance and What I’m Going To Do With My Life. Do I really want to move to Texas and become involved with high school football, or is that just a pipe dream inspired by watching too much Friday Night Lights? Do I still want to go to graduate school now that I’ve decided getting a Ph.D in English really is too stupid for words? Is it totally pathetic that I will be pushing 27 when I get back, and still have no idea what I want to do with my life?

Going home for a few weeks over the summer provided me with a strange picture of what life will be like when I get back to the States. Some things, like discovering I can eat Ben & Jerry’s and still weigh less than I do in Macedonia: awesome. Other things, not so much: a lot of my friends wouldn’t even return my phone calls after two years away; I kept saying “opa!” despite my best efforts not to; cultural references were lost on me; American beer was too rich for me to enjoy; the only person not in my immediate family who wanted to hear about my Peace Corps service for more than two sentences was a creep in a bar; and learning that the only people who won’t think you’re stupid for stopping halfway through a sentence, saying, “I can’t remember…that word…” before coming up with something like “seatbelt” are other Peace Corps Volunteers.

Coming back from the conference, I began to feel sad about the impending close of my service for the first time in a while. Today I was sitting outside with A., watching her color in a mermaid coloring book I found in Struga, arguing with her about the value of school, and I realized that a few months from now I won’t have a six-year-old yelling at me, “Two plus two! Is what?! So boring, Ellen, it’s so boring. And it’s hard! I’m little! We’re so little! They teach us math, English, writing the alphabet, we’re too little for all of that!” I guess I am apprehensive about finishing my service about a quarter because I’m freaked about returning to the States in less than a year, a quarter because I’m freaked about not returning to the States in three months, a quarter because I don’t know what the Fulbright is going to look like, and a quarter because I won’t have a six-year-old best friend in Albania.

One more from Centar Zupa


This is gonna put an end to the photos I took around Centar Zupa…which is probably a relief for you, Mom and Dad, since I am not all that good of a photographer.

You can get down to the lake from my town and from Centar Zupa, but I like Zupa’s side more – you get to go down this nice (bug-infested) path, and maybe because no one grazes sheep by the water, everything looks cleaner. The water used to be up much higher (up to where the grass starts in this photo) but we haven’t gotten much rain this summer. I wish I had taken some more photos, because the “beach” had this awesome Old West (or NJ) look to it with the cracked dirt. I was too busy running away from the horseflies to take many photos, though.

Environmental Awareness


The way people in Macedonia dispose of their trash is one of the few things that consistently upsets me about the country. For all that’s wrong in the States re: how many things we dispose of that we could reuse or repurpose, how many products are packaged to excess, we do tend to look down on people who toss potato chip bags out of car windows or drop a styrofoam coffee cup on a sidewalk. In Macedonia, people are far less likely to tote garbage around in their bags or pockets to throw away in a trash can. If you eat a bag of chips while you’re riding in a combi, you throw the bag out the window when you finish. If you buy an ice cream bar, you drop the wrapper while you walk down the street.

My attempts to make change in this region have been pretty slight, though, mostly telling my little sister things like, “The earth is good! We need to clean it! Don’t throw that, give it to me!” When we go to the store she usually gives me her candy wrappers while we walk home, and I put them in one of the buckets we collect trash in.

That said, even “collected garbage” is often burned, either in the town’s garbage dump or by individual families. A few times a week I have to shut my windows because the smell of burning plastic is drifting in from a neighbor’s. What I find interesting about this is that I get upset, very easily, over the lack of environmental awareness in Macedonia, but I’m also sure that the carbon footprint of an individual American is far greater than that of an individual here. It’s just that you can see (and smell) someone burning a pile of garbage far more easily than you can someone keeping their AC set to 65 degrees all summer long.



I went to a village near me, Centar Zupa, a few days ago to walk around. I’m a big fan of Zupa because I receive about the same amount of staring I get in Debar, but more of it is accompanied by questions (rather than whispers about me as I walk away). I’ve been trying for a while to take a photo of an old-style building in D. and finally got one, there. We have a lot of these style of buildings in my town, a lot of barns with that style of brick, though a few of them fell down during an earthquake a couple years ago. You can also see a little of the roofing tile here. That tile is normal for houses around here, new and old.



The weather in Debar can be a little funny because of the mountains – you can see storms moving in over the mountains and it’s often sunny and pouring at the same time. We get some awesome rainbows here. This photo is looking over my neighbor’s garden, taken through my broken, cobwebbed window. (I swear, I do clean occasionally.)