An afternoon in Ohrid

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Apple Festival in Tetova

A couple of weeks ago 6 of us - 3 Peace Corps trainees from my village and 3 from a neighboring village - headed west for the annual apple festival in Tetovo. Tetovo is in the northwest part of Macedonia, not far from Kosovo and Albania, though you'd have to go over some significant mountains to reach Albania. It was a gray and rainy day, and we took the bus from Skopje. Traveling in Macedonia is a lot like traveling in New Hampshire or Vermont - because it is small the distances aren't nearly as far as they look on a map. We almost missed our stop in Tetova and went down to Gostivar, but at the last minute a friend who was smart enough to remember her guidebook realized we were in Tetovo and we got our grumbling driver to stop again to let us off. At that point we discovered there really wasn't a festival - the person who had thought of the trip had told one of our friends that Tetovo had the best apples in Macedonia, and that got translated into a feste. But for us it was a feste! We visited with Peace Corps volunteers living there, went to see the painted mosque, and ate in a good Italian restaurant - I had chicken shishkebab which was very salty like much of the food here but also delicious. It was too bad the weather wasn't better - I could see that the mountains literally came down to the edge of the city, and when it's clear it must be gorgeous. It's an ethnic Albanian town of about 80,000 so we got to practice some of our Albanian. We went to the treg (bazaar) to get pictures of our apple festival before catching the bus and train home. It was a fun way to practice taking local transportation in Macedonia, and one of the nice things about being in the Peace Corps is that there are people everywhere that we can go visit.

Next week we go to for our site visits - to the places we'll live and work for the next two years. I am soooo excited - can hardly wait to see what I will shortly call home. Miss everyone and send my best.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Last Sunday we were supposed to go to a neighboring village to see one of their pigs get slaughtered. It's a village with mixed ethniticies, but all the volunteers are living with ethnic Macedonians, and their lifestyle is a bit different from ours. The volunteer who lives at the house where the pig was to be killed texted us about an hour before the event - instead of slaughtering the pig at the appointed time, we were going to have rychek - or lunch - and the pig had already bitten the dust. We arrived to fresh pork grilling on the brazier, cooking in the house, and a feast prepared. Ethnic Macedonians, especially those in the country, all make their own wine and rakija, the native drink. To make rakija, you distill your home-made wine a few times until the alcohol content reaches 50% (100 proof). They use rakija for most everything - medicine, bathing the body for fever, for wounds, and they are likely to drink it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. However, before you leap to any conclusions, it is really a no-no to be drunk here. They always serve food with rakija and expect you to monitor your intake. Anyway, back to our feast.

The host family set up the table and after first serving us cok(prounounced soak), which is any kind of soda or juice, gave us all rakija and set out grilled pork, sauteed pork, pork liver, cole slaw, pickled veggies, bread, and I'm sure some other things. Since we eat very little meat at my house (and certainly no pork) the meat tasted sooooo good. We were also poured big glasses of their home-made wine. On a tour afterwards, I was shown their store houses where they have all their winter vegetables and probably 10-12 big casks of wine - some of which they're going to distill soon. We sat and talked and ate for about 5 hours. After the main meal, the wine keep flowing and cookies or other treats would magically appear. They grind their own flour and grow feed for their animals as well as everything else they might need, so they're pretty self sufficient. And I must say, they are very gracious hosts. One son spoke English that he had learned from TV and movies, and they taught us words in Macedonian as well as just chatting with us. Macedonians pride themselves as being terrific hosts, and I can attest that they live up to that billing.

Friday, October 23, 2009

These are some random pictures from my last week. The picture on the upper left is my 'cousin's' house where I went for dinner. Ekram is the dad and his wife is the sister of my father. As I've said before, family is very important, and we visit family all the time. If you didn't have a family you wouldn't know who you were and where you belonged, and family is traced back for at least 5 generations. Another volunteer lives with Ekram, and they are one of the more liberal and funny families - it's great fun visiting them with my family. The picture at directly above is Premtim, who is our Albanian language teacher. That's how he looks after trying to get us to pronounce Albanian words correctly - try saying gjthashtu quickly 5 times. The picture above that is the bazaar - every at least medium sized town has one. It's a combination farmer's market and flea market - you can get almost anything there and the prices are very low. I stock up on bananas there, as well as assorted other things. My 'father' bought a crate of the most gorgeous tomatoes you can imagine last week for 40 denari - about one dollar. There are sacks upon sacks of peppers, cabbages, tomatoes, grapes - everything that is coming in from the harvest. In addition, there are booths with clothes, umbrellas, eggs, baby wear - you think of it and it's there. Enver, my 'father' brought me down to buy a immersible hot water pot - takes about 3 minutes to heat a big pot of water. He knew where to go and what to say - we went to an Albanian vendor and they found me a new one they sold to me for about $7.50 and now we have hot water every day in our classroom for tea. We've reached the half way point in our training - hard to believe - and tomorrow we head to Skopje for 'field day', a day we get together with almost all of the other volunteers in country and play games, socialize, and buy stuff from the volunteers who are heading home soon. I'm looking forward to meeting more experienced volunteers and finding out about their experiences! Last weekend 6 of us trainees went to Tetova for the famous Apple Festival, but more about that later. I also want to take more pictures of my family here to share with you. I can't emphasize how friendly everyone is. Children in the village always want to practice their English, so wherever I go I'm greeted with "Hello. What is your name?" There are a number of young girls who run up for a hug whenever they see me, and there is nothing more energizing than a hug from one of them. There are challenges, too, but for the most part things have been wonderful. Enough for now - my love to you all!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Hooray for technology. I was in my favorite place, a bakery with free wifi, and had tea and baclava and called my folks, sister, Chris, and my out-laws on Skype! Chris had a web cam so I even got to see him sitting in his office - it can't get better than that.

Yesterday was a 'hub' day - a day when all of us trainees in Macdonia gather with some volunteers and the Peace Corps staff for training. The staff is super-supportive. We couldn't ask for nicer. One of the sessions yesterday was a panel of folks representing the main ethnic groups in Macedonia - Macedonian, Albanian, Roma, Vlad, Bosnian, Serb - the Turk representative ended up with a last minute conflict and had to cancel. One of the challenges of any democracy is tyranny of the majority - how do you keep minority interests honored? Certainly America has and continues to struggle with this concept. When Yugoslavia fell apart and the troubles started in Serbia and Bosnia, there were considerable tensions in Macedonia between the different ethnicities. The Albanian, Roma, and Bosniacs are, for the most part, Mulism the Serbs, Macedonians, and Vlads are for the most part Orthodox. They all have different languages and traditions - think of the French Canadians and you get a small sense of the challenge - how to integrate but not assimilate. In the US we say how to have a tossed salad as opposed to a melting pot. Macedonia was able to avoid the kind of conflict that developed elsewhere by signing the Ohrid Peace Accord. It allows the different communities to have at least primary schools in their own language, allows each group to designate a holiday especially for that group to go along with other holidays, and mandates representation in governance along with some other strategies to protect the interest of the different groups. There still is tension, but it is an amazingly thoughtful attempt to solve this basic problem in democracies and the world should be watching to see how it works. It's only been 7 or 8 years since the Accords, and it is definitely still a work in progress. As one panelist said - a supernova went off, and we're still in the cooling phase. There is so much happening in this small country - am I not one of the most fortunate people in the world to be here?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Saturday in Skopje.

Last weekend we went to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, for a few hours. It was the one rainy day in a month of sunshine, but the rain held off while we were there. Skopje is located in the wide Vardur valley that snakes through the Balkans and the center of Macedonia. Most of the people and farming exist in that valley, and it's served as a highway for nomadic people and armies for centuries. It also makes for beautiful sunrises and sunsets in the area! We visited the old fort and old town. Skopje is not a big tourist destination for people outside of Macedonia, and as a result the 'tourist' attractions are very different from what I'm used to. Most of the city was leveled by an earthquake in 1963. From what I hear, several countries came in and helped rebuild the city with 1960's architecture, sigh. There's a Norwegian built section (the Peace Corps office is on Oslo St), a Japanese section, etc. Parts of the fort and old town, the walls of which were built by the Turks with little or no mortar, were pretty much all that remained. The fort, which has been around since early AD and has Roman, Slavic, Turkish, and probably the remains of many other groups, is a major archeological site and looks as if it has many, many digs that have happened and are still going on. Old town, which has one of the national art museums in the old Turkish bath, is still an active merchant area, filled mainly with ethnic Albanian stores. We went to the museum which had a modern exhibit called "Skins" that was done by a German woman to represent the different 'skins' and roles that women take on. Just imagine for a second - an exhibt by a German woman on the roles of women in the Western world in a turkish bath in the middle of an ethnic Albanian shopping area. It truly is a global world!
There are no real tourist stores that I've seen, and I have yet to find a postcard - sorry everyone I promised to send cards to! The shops are all small and the area was teeming with people. A couple of the streets we went down to get there had room for only one car at a time but were not one-way, which resulted in some interesting traffic challenges. I'll attach some pictures so you can get a little feel of the area - but to really get a feel, you'll have to come and visit!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Hi, all,
It's been a busy week, and I've had little computer time, but didn't want more time going by without at least checking in. Tomorrow we're going to the bazaar. It occupies a huge space in Kumanovo, and is filled with harvest items, as well as about everything else you can think of. We're supposed to go there to practice asking about prices for things, both in Macedonian and in Albanian. Should be a hoot to watch us. We're supposed to bargain, but I'm not sure how much I can do that = things are already pretty cheap.

Generally twice a week I travel into Kumanovo for my practicum. There are 4 of us who are assigned to Community Development from my town and the neighboring town. I meet the other 3 in Kumanovo and we go and interview people working in the local opstina - muncipal government - and a couple of the local NGO's. Macedonia is a dream for people who love political science. As a professor told us a week ago, his grandmother, who lived until she was 90, lived in 6 different countries, and all without going more than 18 miles from the place she was born. Since the late 1800's, Macedonia's national politics and infrastructure has changed that many times. As I've said before, it's only been a country since 1991, and the laws and rules have always come from far away. As part of the treaty in 2001, more power was transferred to the local muncipalities so that more local control could mean that the government was more responsive to the people and the ethnic minorities. For the last 7 years, they've been working on that transfer. It's hard to describe the complexity - different skills are needed, funding sources, space, and attitudes. Everyone we've met has been amazing, and it's so interesting to see what they're doing. I keep thinking of New England and town meetings - the history of wonderful, inefficient and sometimes even unfair local control is so important, and here, at least as far as government is concerned, that's a completely foreign concept. How to find balance between what needs to be from the central government, what needs to be local, how to protect minority populations of all kinds - that's what we've been experimenting with for 200+ years, and here they're just starting to wrestle with it all. Okay, my political science lecture for the day - but I have loved the luxury of sitting and talking with people about it!

Hopefully Tuesday I'll have the chance to tell you about my trip to Skopje and to post some pictures. Hope everyone is keeping warm - we've had a stretch of unbelievable weather!

Friday, October 2, 2009

I'm sitting outside of a bakery in downtown Kumanovo writing this. Kumanovo is just a few minutes by taxi from where I live in Cherkeze. The taxis wait at the end of town by Fortuna, a building that has a small grocery and building supply shop. They wait until 3 or 4 people arrive to go into Kumanovo, then go to the Green Market and let us off. With a full taxi it costs 20 dinar, or about 50 cents. Alternately, I go down to the railroad tracks and wait for the bus, which is only 10 dinar. I'm getting quite good at getting around, and people are very helpful. When I first took the bus back from Kumanovo, the man that helped me find the right bus couldn't believe I was really going to Cherkeze. He asked me the address, and was only molified when I told him I was going to Fortuna. When we got off the bus, he was still looking at me like he was waiting for me to say: "No, this is a terrible mistake, I don't want to be here!", but instead I hopped off, smiled at him, and headed up the road to my house. Speaking of my house, I'm going to post pictures of it. It's the huge stone building next to the mosque. As big as it looks, we only live on one floor. I think I mentioned the cafe, unfinished 1st floor and unknown 3rd floor before, so I won't describe it more. Every morning though, the call to prayer is blasted through the loud speakers right outside my window at 5:45, so I have an automatic wake up alarm! The other pictures are of some of the local kids, who always want to practice their English with us, and the house of one of the other volunteers, where we stopped and helped the mom shell beans.
The pictures also show a little bit of the roads in Cherkeze. At any one time those narrow roads have flocks of sheep and goats, cows, various cars and taxis, pedestrians, and boys on scooters or in-line skates competing for space. When I riding in a car I often just place my faith in the amazing depth perception of Macedonian drivers. So far I've never seen an accident, and given what seems to be the somewhat haphazard pattern of drivers and people, it seems incredible. I will never criticize New York drivers again!
Next time I'll write about my practicum experiences and what I'm learning here from the Peace Corps. They take really good care of us, which is nice. Hope everyone is doing well.