Category Archives: Cross-cultural

Abs of Steel, Albania Style

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When I lived in Macedonia I devoted a fair amount of time to grumbling about volunteers who complained about the gym in their city. “Your site has a gym?! And you’re complaining?!

Of course, after four months living in Albania’s capital I’ve developed an impressive ability to complain about even these luxuries. You know: the Italian grocery store doesn’t have my favorite flavor of Italian yogurt, I had to go to the second-closest grocery store to buy my peanut butter, there were too many Americans at the bar last night, the English-language novels at the bookstore ten minutes from my apartment are too expensive…

And, the gym. Hoping to reverse the effects of two weeks spent eating a half pint of Ben & Jerry’s a day, plus huevos rancheros for breakfast, followed by a few days of pizza and gelato, followed by more pizza and gelato, I signed up at the local “Ladies Gym” with my fellow Fulbrighters when I returned from Christmas vacation. Apart from the fact that I’ve packed on five pounds* (not muscle) since joining, things there have been going well… though the gym has more in common with an apartment building manager’s grudging concession to a difficult rental market than to an American-style gym, with its three ellipticals, three treadmills (one that threatens to send you hurtling into a weight station as it inexplicably changes speed every few minutes), five bicycles, and a few weight machines.

I have some poor memories of gyms in America. There was the day I realized I had to do my sit-ups at home, if I didn’t want a nineteen-year-old boy at the college gym ogling me while I tried to hide the effects of my burrito and beer habits. There was the way I always timed my apartment complex workouts for the same hour cleaning staff were passing through the gym/library. There were all my old high school classmates I had hoped never to see again, but did after joining my hometown’s gym to kill time in the two months before my Peace Corps departure.

Still, nothing quite prepared me for the Albanian gym. The equipment may be the same, but the mentality is different and centered on not sweating. Our first night at the gym the two trainers took us through our paces: ten minutes on the bicycle, ten minutes on the elliptical, ten minutes walking on the treadmill, ten minutes of sit-ups. Done! The next day we were to return to learn how to get abs of steel; but being Americans, we figured we’d get our fifty dollars’ worth and spend some more time on the treadmill. As we jogged, the trainers stood by our sides, repeatedly urging us to lay off, or to run for just two minutes and then walk for ten before heading home. They did a poor job of hiding their fear that we were about to have massive heart attacks after running a kilometer.

Don’t get me wrong. This gym does some things that American gyms don’t do and should, like encouraging everyone to use the weight equipment, and demonstrating how to use the equipment and how to do a variety of horrible ab exercises. But it took us about a week to press in that we were going to come in and do what we wanted, regardless of the widely held belief that more than two minutes of cardio will drop us. My greatest tactical error was revealing, one day when I went in alone, that I knew Albanian. An hour later I found myself struggling not to weep as I neared the end of my thirty-minute ab routine, then nodded meekly as my trainer pointed to one of the bikini-clad women whose photos plaster the walls and told me that I could look like her if I tried hard enough.**

Still, the Albanian gym does offer its pleasures, and a number of unique exercises you won’t find at any American gym. There’s struggling to change into your shorts before the cleaning lady comes into the locker room to keep you company. There’s trying to pick your way through the seemingly non-stop step classes that have cruelly been positioned between the treadmills and the bathroom. There’s running through the cloud of smoke billowing just outside the gym doors – smoking apparently being a widely recognized form of “lung training.” When I return to America, and am once again feeling inadequate for being the least healthy person in the gym (surrounded by women running six-minute miles for, like, an hour straight), I bet I’m going to miss these things.

* To be fair, this was probably the fault of my Ritter Sport Diet (see: dark chocolate Ritter Sports went on sale at the grocery store for a buck a piece) more than my joining the gym. It turns out that while a block of dark chocolate a day may be good for you, an entire bar a day mostly just gives you a muffin top.

** It was at this point that I thought I should explain photoshop, and being politically correct. But, no.

My Tose Pilgrimage

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The easiest way I can think of explaining what Tose Proeski (Тоше Проески) means in Macedonia is to say that he is to Macedonians what Princess Diana is to the rest of the world. Proeski was a top Macedonian singer, popular all around the Balkans, known for his music, his humanitarian work and his phrase, “ве сакам ситe” (I love you all). Four years ago he died in a car crash in Croatia, when he was just 26.

I was in Macedonia a few months before I even heard of Tose. He’s a constant presence in Macedonian households, not Albanian ones, but partway through training I saw his portrait in the home of a volunteer living with a Macedonian Orthodox family. I asked if he was a cousin, trying to figure out why there were so many photos of him in the sitting room, and got my first lesson in Macedonian music.

Tose wasn’t just a musician to Macedonians; he was a symbol for the country and its rise, its great hope. At the time of his death he was working on his first English-language album, The Hardest Thing.

What I’m trying to get at here is that a pilgrimage to Tose’s hometown of Krusevo is something that must. be. done., and I finally did it, with two other volunteers, Jane and Katie. Our trip to the town from Bitola should have taken about an hour, but that it didn’t seemed fitting. The Bitola-Krusevo bus time we’d been told was incorrect, so we had to wait in the station an extra hour; then there was a police stop and we all had to get off the bus for fifteen minutes; then the bus broke down just outside Demir Hisar because, to quote the driver, “a part fell off”; then the driver and his assistant vanished, without a word, leaving us to stand next to the bus for thirty minutes; then we at last abandoned ship, walked into a few stores asking about taxis to Krusevo, and for 200 denars each made the last thirty minutes of our trip in a stylish minivan. (It has been a while since any of us have seen one, so that praise is genuine.)

Krusevo is not only the highest town in Macedonia but home to the Tose Proeski Memorial House. I was surprised by how well-done this museum was. There were stands where you could listen to Tose’s music, some very cool sections of wall and glass with etchings of Tose’s lyrics, two floor-to-ceiling segments of wall devoted to photos of Tose, and displays featuring such varied items as Tose’s numchuks, trainerkis, dental floss and Secretariat DVD.

Just up the hill from the Tose Musuem is the Macedonian Monument, commemorating the 1903 Ilinden Uprising, a revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Being the classy volunteers that we are, Jane, Katie and I took the opportunity to walk around humming the Death Star theme from Star Wars and taking glamour shots in front of the monument.

After a quick coffee (when we had the chance to watch the town cheer on the Macedonian basketball team, who after beating Greek and Lithuania were playing Spain in a[n ultimately failed] bid for an Olympic shot, if I’ve got this right [I know so much about sports]) we took a kombi to Prilep. This was my first visit to Prilep and its famed Thai restaurant. I was pretty pleased with myself when I got back home the next day, able to check two more things off my Macedonia To-Do List.

Both photos in this post are from Katie, since I forgot to bring my camera along for this epic journey. Go read her post on Krusevo too!

Living with a Host Family: Advices

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For my Peace Corps training I spent 11 weeks living with an Albanian host family, with a bedroom in their home. For the two years of my actual service, I live with a Macedonian Muslim host family, in their compound. Living with a family is sometimes awesome, sometimes frustrating, and looking back on the past two years there are some things I think I did well with the family, others that…I would’ve changed. Based on that, advice on living with a host family. (This is about the only thing, Peace Corps-wise, that I am qualified to give advice on, though I’m mostly writing this for my own benefit – to remember a little more clearly what I’ve been up to, at home, the past two years.)

LANGUAGE

Whatever you do, use your host family to learn the language. As much as you want to think that everyone you work with and run into is interested in helping you learn their language, many people are just as committed to laughing at you when you screw up. Your host family may well be your best chance to learn the language with people who are coming to care about you and feel invested in your success as a volunteer.

PRIVACY

Set some basic boundaries – don’t leave your stacks of American bills laying around, put a password on your laptop – but let go of most of your ideas of privacy so you can be closer with your family.

If you’re with a family for the duration of your service, you need to think more about what degree of privacy you need. Whatever country you’re in, people probably don’t have the same ideas of privacy, personal space and personal possessions that we have in America, and you need to be clear in what your expectations of privacy are. If it makes you uncomfortable that your host siblings are climbing up the wall to look in your window, cover the window and/or explain to your family why it makes you uncomfortable when they do that. If you don’t want your siblings touching your computer, be clear that they need to ask you before they start playing videos on youtube and accidentally closing your unsaved Great American Novel.

Set clear boundaries regarding your personal possessions, unless you want all your shampoo, conditioner, shaving cream, face wash, laundry detergent, fabric softener and American candy to vanish the first weekend you’re away. There may be some things you don’t mind your family using, but you need to be clear about what’s what – if they are driving you up the wall by using your overpriced American shampoo (or whatever), start putting it away in a drawer and tell your family that they’re free to use whatever’s out in the open…but not, say, your toothbrush. Other things you’ll have to get used to, like your family using your shower when you’re away, or sending guests over to your house to pee because you have the nicest bathroom; but these will be manageable so long as your make-up, shampoo and beer collection are safe.

PERSONAL TIME

As with personal space, people outside of America often don’t have the ideas of “alone time” that we have in the States. They may worry when you vanish into your room or house for long stretches of time, thinking that you are sad (rather than having the Best Day Ever, reading Harry Potter).

Best advice here? Get used to having less alone time. To become a “member” of your family you need to spend hours a day with them, which often means doing things you don’t have a lot of interest in doing – watching soap operas, eating, sitting in a room full of crying children, whatever. If you can find a way to combine your alone time activities (say, reading or knitting or playing video games) with family time (read or knit or let your family play your video games) you have won, and should be commended. But find a way to do this early on – start bringing your language homework or a novel into the family’s space early on, so they don’t think it’s bizarre or hurtful when you start doing so after six months with them.

INGRATIATING YOURSELF TO YOUR FAMILY

Look, here’s the fact: as much as you want to be a real, honest-to-God member of your host family, you are never going to be. You are always going to be the American, and with almost every family your relationship will have some baggage for the simple fact that Peace Corps is paying for your house or room & board, and that you probably have fewer responsibilites and more money than anyone in your family over the age of sixteen.

Doesn’t mean you can’t become a valued addition to their family, though, and there are a couple easy ways to do this. One: make food for them. Desserts (cookies, brownies) are the easy ones; American desserts seem more universally beloved than “American” entrees. (Try making a burrito or curry for your family and their forced smiles will help you see what I mean.) Two: get in with the kids. Once your host family’s kids like you, the family likes you; and playing with your new siblings every day is probably the best way of showing your family that you’re a decent person despite your weird haircut and clothes. (That sounds so calculating and cold – but the kids are probably going to be the members of your family you naturally gravitate to, anyway, since your language skills are more on a par. This is why my best friend in Macedonia is six years old.)

MENTAL HEALTH

I don’t think anyone in Peace Corps ever discussed this with me, probably because volunteers in Macedonia don’t usually live with families during their service. Whether you’re living in one room of your family’s house or in their compound, though, the lack of privacy, the use of your personal stuff, the hours of soap operas you have to watch with your mom every day, will probably start to take a toll on your mental health. As someone who doesn’t often get a day to just chill without someone knocking on my door or trying to climb through my living room window, I bear the unfortunate news that these things can erode you until you have days when you don’t feel capable of getting out of bed. (I use the term “bed” loosely.)

Whether you’re living with a family for training or for two years, make a list, early on, of what you need to do to be yourself. If you went running when you lived in America, do that in your new town. If you can’t run outside (I can’t) find an alternative: walks, exercise videos, a million crunches a day, whatever. But put as much value on the activities YOU value as you do on the activities your family values. It’ll often seem easiest to “assimilate” by doing whatever your family does all day long, but remind yourself, if you need to, that you’re still American regardless of where you live, and that you are not going to suddenly change from being a person who needs a run to relieve stress to a person who needs a coffee and an episode of Macedonian Idol to relax. Instead of spending five hours a day with your family you might spend two or three, but you’ll still be spending those two hours a day with your family after two years with them, instead of writing blog posts suggesting that you yourself have “burned out” on host families. (I am totally not talking about myself here.)

The Risks of a Cross Breeze

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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.

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 Lessons

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Dear Reader, no doubt you have been worrying yourself over my health and happiness, and the general state of affairs in the Peace Corps Macedonia, for the past two weeks now. How can it be that I have gone two weeks without finding some insignificant event (my sister lighting her hair on fire, my brother cutting himself while slicing meat in the shop, the day the dog got loose) to bore you all with?

Thus begins my sad tale of the past two weeks.

1. Thunderstorms and the Internet

I know my parents unplug their computers during thunderstorms. I know that I unplug my computer during thunderstorms. But two weeks ago we had such a thunderstorm here that I couldn’t think of anything to do other than watch an episode of Gossip Girl. Let’s just say that my surge protector failed me and I no longer have a router or a power cable for my laptop, and that you shouldn’t be as stupid as me since it will probably take another four to five weeks to get T-Mobile to bring the promised replacement router to my home.

2. Macedonian medical care is not the same as American medical care

The day after losing internet I uncovered a medical issue that I won’t bother detailing here as (despite all evidence to the contrary) I do value my privacy. This is the sort of thing that, in America, would be checked out quickly and laid to rest, but turns out to here require arguing with Peace Corps doctors, arguing with the doctor the Peace Corps doctors brought in, and then calling in to Peace Corps to make sure that the follow-up appointments will indeed be scheduled to my satisfaction. An issue that could be dealt with in an hour in America, counting driving to the doctors’ office (well, and a little waiting afterwards) here will end up taking me three six-hour round trips to Skopje.

3. If you forget your PIN, don’t keep trying out imaginary PINs at the ATM

On my way to Skopje for the aforementioned doctor appointment, I spent a night in Tetovo. Seeing no way to prevent myself from prematurely writing my obituary, I had a couple of beers, which may have contributed to both my inability to remember my pin and my inability to remember that if you input the incorrect pin number three times in a row the ATM will eat your debit card.

So it was that, already convinced that I was shortly to die from the issue mentioned in #2, and unable to skype or email my parents to detail what I’d like the newspaper to write about me following my death, I lost my debit card. The next morning I went to the other bank in Tetovo, it not having occurred to me that I should have gone back to, as it were, the scene of the crime, to withdraw money using my laminated bank identification card. They wouldn’t allow me to take out money because I didn’t have my debit card, and after I explained a couple times that the ATM had eaten my card, they agreed to make me a new one, only to tell me after finding that I didn’t have my passport that actually they couldn’t.

The day after my appointment, when I was back home, I went to my own bank, again tried to withdraw money, couldn’t, and was sent over to a kind woman who called the bank in Tetovo and learned that they had my debit card. Hurrah! Now knowing the whereabouts of my debit card, they let me withdraw money and told me to go to the bank in Tetovo to retrieve my card.

Two days later I went to Tetovo, went to the bank, explained in precise terms (“I lost my debit card in the ATM here at this bank, on Sunday”) what had happened, only to have the woman tell me repeatedly that she had no idea what I was saying. I jammed my bank ID card across the counter for her, she looked me up on the computer, and some confusion about where I was from: was I from Skopje (where the Peace Corps office is, and my card is apparently registered?); was I from D. (where I told her I had learned I could come to this bank to retrieve my card; and if so, why on earth was I in the Tetovo bank?); was I from Tetovo (where I had, of course, lost the card)? Finally she got sick of me and told me to go to another room and make a copy of my passport she could include in paperwork for a new debit card.

Joany found me there, on the verge of tears, and as I was explaining my sad tale to her (it goes like: I still don’t have internet, I’m still going to die, and I spent two hours on a combi to learn that there’s no reason for me to be here because I’m not getting my card back anyway) she looked behind me and saw her counterpart’s father. We went over, said hello, and although his job was clearly not the recovery of missing debit cards, I explained my problem to him. He told us to wait, ran off, and moments later returned with a stack of debit cards. He rifled through them, we saw my card on the bottom, I resisted the urge to simultaneously cry and hug him, I signed a piece of paper confirming the receipt of my card, and we walked out.

Let’s wrap this up with a moral: some things in Macedonia are not like they are in America (medical care), some things are pretty different (customer service, the value of personal relations when doing business), and some things are exactly the same (that it will take the internet company six weeks to come out to your house but they will continue charging you for the internet you don’t have).

On how I can love and hate everything about being here

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Tonight I came back from English class to find a large and indescribable piece of furniture in my kitchen. I think it may be a jewelry case from a new storefront my family began renting.

Really, though, who cares. This is a piece of furniture notable only for having turned my kitchen into an obstacle course, and for its sudden and unexpected appearance in the room I cook, work and sleep in.

It also highlights in part one of the frustrations of living with a family. Really, what I am going to do about this giant piece of furniture besides meekly ask my mother at what date they plan to move it out of my kitchen? Because I will be living with them for the next year and a half and hang out with them every day, I can’t pick up the furious tenant routine I practiced in Philadelphia.

I’d been planning to do something on the pros and cons of my life here – although really it’s not even pros and cons, more like how everything here is the same from day to day, and only my reactions and moods change. I can’t think of a more appropriate time to do so than now, as I sit in the shadow of my new furniture. All the things I dislike or find hard about being here are the same things that I love about it.

MY FAMILY:

Bad Mood: I hate it when my bell starts ringing at 9am. No, I don’t want to play. I don’t want coffee! I don’t want to come over and watch soap operas! I don’t want you to come in my house and spend all day listening to Macedonian pop music while you organize things for the wedding! I want to be left alone, free to sit on my floor eating chocolates and crying as I read YA romance novels, just like in America.

Most volunteers seem to have a family they’re especially close to in their town, and who they’re expected to visit frequently, but having your family coming into your home five or six times a day (sometimes that many times before noon) is a different sort of relation.

Good Mood: Some days, even days when I feel shitty, I love to have my family ringing my doorbell. When I’m on the verge of shifting into an irredeemably bad/sad mood and my doorbell rings with an invitation of some sort, it saves me and leaves me once more feeling decent about being here. Yesterday, when it seemed certain I would spend the night curled up on my sofa under my sleeping bag (that I have not been sleeping on my fold-out sofa in the other room but in my sleeping bag on my unfold-outable sofa in the living room is a good indication of my current mental state) listening to the new National album, my sisters came over and told me to come for dinner and to watch Bandini. Saved. Today when I came home from the store (trying to create things to do so I didn’t spend the whole afternoon sleeping) I played ball with my sister J. for an hour. Saved. They make my life here worthwhile and satisfying when other things aren’t going well.

After only five months, the thought of having to leave them in a year and a half makes me sadder than I can describe. For the rest of my life, I will have a second family here in D. And for these two years I am lucky enough to see their culture up close, every day. Probably every volunteer here will go to at least one wedding during their service, but I am the only one who gets to live with a family and help with the preparations in the months leading up to the wedding. I may well be the only volunteer here whose American parents have been invited to a Macedonian wedding.

EVERYONE ON THE STREET KNOWS ME:

Bad Mood: In America, I walked and ran as a way to clear my mind and get away from people. I could go into the woods near my apartment and safely run, mostly alone, for an hour. I listened to my iPod when I walked. I like to be anonymous, to go out and do my own thing without anyone noticing or caring what I’m doing. Here, I can’t. I can’t walk down the street without students yelling at me, greeting me, or running up for a hug. I just want to be left alone! People I don’t know know me because their children know me. I can never go out for a walk to get away from it all, and my attempts to find mostly people-free areas to walk have only underscored that I should not be walking in mostly people-free areas. (Why? There is always a person there, and he is usually a dude, and you’re alone.) Every time I walk out my door I do so knowing I’m going to be bombarded with greetings or, sometimes, with insults.

Good Mood: My students run up to me on the street and hug me. They want to know when I’m going to be back in class. Their parents know me because they hear about me from their children, and that they seem to like me indicates that their kids are saying good things.

EVERYONE, IN EVERY STORE, KNOWS ME:

Bad Mood: An extension of the above. The store owners know what I usually buy. They know where I’m from, how old I am, where I work, how long I’ve been here and how much longer I will be here. They know where I live, they know my family here, and soon enough they will know my family from America as well. Thus, they not only know me, they know what I buy. When I need wine I may go to the large store in town, but the same women are always working there, and they sure know what I’m buying and how often I’m buying it. One day I would like to enter a store without anyone paying any attention to me, but that’s not going to happen until I am back in America.

Good Mood: When I had the flu, I went for the first time to the little store that is closest to my house. The only two things I wanted in the world were peach juice and a Popkek. When I went back the next day, the owner remembered that I wanted a Popkek.

Today, when I went into a little store I last visited in December, the storekeeper remembered me. “You’re the American! You were here with your friend!” and then proceeded to profusely thank me for my purchase.

I’ve been in other stores a couple times when someone has asked about me and the storekeeper has gone through my entire life history. How do they remember this? I don’t know, but it’s awesome, and it’s one of the reasons I now shop almost exclusively at the little stores near my house.

I AM KIND OF OUT IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE:

Bad Mood: Having now spent five months listening to people tell me they are going to come to my town, I fully expect to hear the same for the next year and a half. D. is not a destination in and of itself, and it is not on the way to anything. I don’t know why people say they’re going to visit, but it drives me nuts. Don’t say you will! We both know you’re not coming all the way out here, and that’s fine! In the same vein, I am rarely going to visit other volunteers because it’s a pain to travel out of my site – nearly any trip I take first requires a three-hour trip to the capital. I can’t hope on a train, like I could in Philly or New Jersey, and go to a museum, a show, a new bar.

Good Mood: I don’t want to be near other volunteers. I have some great friends among the volunteers, but I’m not here to make friends with Americans. My relief at not having sitemates, or even “near sitemates,” is indescribable. All my projects will be my own, and will succeed or fail based on how well I build them and how good a job I do of making connections in my town. I’m forced to have HCN (host country national) friends because there’s no one else here I can be friends with. I am going to learn both Macedonian and Albanian because people here don’t know English, as they do in the cities or in tourist towns. D. is a good-sized town with everything I need. I am out of Peace Corps’ way, which makes it easy for me to evade their notice. And, because D. is not on the way to anything, I’m never going to have to deal with volunteers crashing on my sofas.

When I first got to site it seemed unimaginable to live without an American and I spent a lot of time with my closest volunteer neighbor. After a couple months here, though, despite being good friends with this volunteer, I didn’t want to see her so much. It’s distracting to have another American around, and it takes me away from the things I think I should be doing with my family or co-workers. I’ve always been selfish with my time, and dislike changing my plans for the benefit of someone else. Since I don’t have volunteers coming through Debar, I never have to change my plans (miss pita Sunday or a tavche gravche night or a coffee with a friend) to fit them in.

Being away from Americans is freeing, and forced me to adjust to life here. I can’t escape from things here with American time, so I’m forced to deal with it in other ways, like blogging or sitting in front of my heater eating chocolate bars… or by playing ball with my sister, drinking coffee with my mom, watching soap operas with my family. Or blogging.

WHAT I THINK OF THE PEACE CORPS AS AN ORGANIZATION:

Bad Mood: Grassroots change is great, but in some situations it can’t do much. Many of the problems the education system here has cannot be changed in the classroom: you need to have someone leading the system in a different direction. I worry that there is an overwhelming focus on how many volunteers are “in the field,” rather than on whether they are doing good work where they already are, and if there’s work for an increased number of volunteers. There’s a focus on numbers that doubtless inspires some tweaking of facts. And, in the end, how lasting can any change be that is brought about by foreigners, or with the aid of foreigners, rather than change that comes strictly from a people themselves?

Good Mood: We are, at least, trying.