An afternoon in Ohrid

Saturday, November 21, 2009

As I've probably said before, there are 37 of us who came over to Macedonia as PC volunteers this year - we're the 14th group so are called Mak 14. After the first week, we went to live in different villages - 6 or 7 to a village. These are my compatriots from Cherkeze on Halloween - the 5 other volunteers and our two language and culture teachers. It's a good group - all very different personalities but, as you might expect, everyone has a sense of adventure. I will miss seeing all of them every day when I move to Gostivar, but expect to see them periodically on visits or official PC functions, and we've had an experience together that has created a bond like no other. Yesterday was our last Albanian class. Eventually we will need to pass a language proficiency class and yesterday we also had a practice test to see what it was like and what they were looking for. Hana, who tested us, said I used a lot of gestures to get my message across, which really wouldn't count on the test, which is taped, but would help in everyday life. Everyone who knows me is probably laughing, because not only do I use a lot of gestures in Albanian and Macedonian, I use a lot when trying to speak English! Nor is anyone in my group surprised that Kacy's first 'words' weren't words at all but animal sounds. I haven't treated them to a donkey bray yet, but they've heard goats, chickens and turkeys. How could we not come to Halloween as animals - animals in boxes, mind you.

I've also included a picture of Gostivar. You can see the little mountains that are on one side of town - the bigger ones are on the other side but it was cloudy and hard to see them. Yesterday my counterpart from the sheepbreeders association came and picked me up to go up to Lipcove to meet the Mayor of the municipality. Hmmm, a word about municipalities. As part of the 2001 framework agreement that I've mentioned before, the government agreed to decentralize some functions of government to make it more accountable to the people. The country was divided into municipalities where there is usually one big town or city and a number of smaller villages. Kumanovo has 48 villages as part of its municipality. It makes me smile to remember New England and how decentralized it is - essentially Marlow was its own municipality with a selectmen's board, its own police, fire, road, and school department. It would blow the minds of Macedonians. But I digress. The mayor was sick, but we met with two other municipal officials to discuss the centrality of agriculture, what kind of life the citizens wanted, and putting up billboards advertising seminars we're giving in February before the lambs come. Luli, my counterpart, is an agricultural engineer and is fantastic. He has a vision, and I only hope I can be of help to him. The meetings were conducted in Albanian, with Luli translating some, but some I could understand at least the gist of. It is a long way from when we moved in with our families and had only been taught the Albanian alphabet. Communication is definitely still a challenge, but at least we have some words, and our families have learned what we know and don't know as well and how to get things across to us.

Once I get to site I can get tutors in both Macedonian and Albanian. So I won't stop learning, but it won't be as intensive as it has been. Every now and then I have a conversation with someone not associated with Peace Corps, and it still is a thrill to be understood, although I am most expert in Macebanian. I have my Macedonian practice test on Tuesday, so this weekend will be a cram session for that, and hopefully I will not use too many Albanian words - I used several Macedonian words for my Albanian test! I encourage all of you to learn as many languages as you can when you're young - it's crazy, but crazy fun, to be doing this at 63!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Just a week to go before we're sworn in as official Peace Corps volunteers. They flew in a bunch of turkeys from the US and we'll have a huge potluck dinner after our swearing in. I thought you'd like to see the wheel of sheep cheese I got in Gostivar - it was lovely. Below is a sign advertising a cafe in Gostivar - the Barack Obama Caffeteria - it's Albanian and male only, so sadly I won't ever get to see the inside!

I haven't said much about the Peace Corps in my blogs. They really take good care of us. We have 2 doctors and a safety and security officer to look out for us, and they have been giving us all kinds of trainings on top of our language training. Everyone is very supportive. We have our own quite extensive medical kits for first aid, and anyone can be called 24 hours a day if something happens. The experienced volunteers take care of us as well.

I've grown quite adept at traveling in all sorts of ways - taxis, buses, both local and country wide, trains and by foot. Each and every trip is a bit of an adventure. I went and visited Sveti Nikoli the other day. It is a Macedonian town, and like everywhere, I was greeted with the greatest of kindness and hospitality. The family I was staying with took me and another volunteer to a 'naming' party. People who are members of the Macedonian Orthodox Church are generally named for one of their saints, and when it's the Saint's day the person has a naming party. They invite all kinds of folks over and have a wonderful spread of food. We arrived at about 9 or 10 at night, and there were salad, veggies, and cold cuts laid out. We thought that was great and ate up, and then came out the main dishes....Yikes. They served sarma (stuffed cabbage), dolma(stuffed peppers), and I think pork tenderloin slices. After that was dessert - mind you we'd been eating all day and this was late at night! There was much discussion at the table and good fellowship. The Macedonians also have house naming day, which is the saint's day for their family saint. They again have a feast for people and bake bread and take it to the priest to have it blessed and the family members blessed. The day after Thanksgiving is the end of Hadj for the Albanians and is the big Bajram celebration - we had the little Bajram celebration at the end of Ramazan. So all of us living with Albanians are staying an additional day to celebrate with our families. Traditionally a ram is slaughtered to represent Allah giving food to a starving family. Oh, and there will be lots of food!

So Thanksgiving one day, Bajram the next. If you're worried about me getting enough to eat - don't! As you can see, I am well fed and if I keep going at this rate, I'll be very round when I return home. Things will be changing when I cook for myself, though! Mirupafshem!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Site Visit in Gostivar

I just got back from our site visit in Gostivar. A site visit is our chance to meet our counterpart in the organization we'll be working in, see the city, and confirm our apartment site, so it is much anticipated by all the trainees. Three of us went to Gostivar, which is a gorgeous town nestled at the end of a mountain valley. Huge mountains rise up from the edges of town, which of course fills me with excitement - I can hardly wait to get out there and hike. My counterpart is a gem - very sweet. He works for the regional sheepbreeders association where I'll be based, and I spent 3 days meeting all kinds of people. We visited a cheese factory, extension office (much like extension offices in the States), the local municipal government, a microfinancing NGO and a major sheep farm. We also went to a 3 hour meeting, conducted both in Albanian and Macedonian, that is identifying an infrastructure project to do. I felt like I was already getting primed for the job he wants me working on with him, which is creating an overarching association that unites all primary producers with processors and technical experts to facilitate more efficient and competitive farm to market operations. We also had delicious pizza at his cousin's pizza restaurant, saw another cousin's produce store, and I met his other cousin who works in a business related NGO. That's typical of Albanian and Macedonian culture. It's hard for them to understand what we're doing here so far from our families. They trace them back for generations and seem to be related to everyone in town either directly or through marriage. But for me it's great - it means I have instant connections in Gostivar. My apartment is very nice - I have a living room, small dining room, kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom with a small washing machine. Kacy is moving into the West Village in NY, and I bet my apartment is as big as hers! BTW, a little motherly pride, we just received word she passed the New York bar - congrats, my sweetie! I took treats into class today to celebrate.

South of Gostivar is the major national park in Macedonia, which I've heard is lovely. The sheep graze in mountain pastures in the summer, and I've been promised that I will be taken up there to visit. The family at the farm we visited were lovely - we had a good visit and were served the most delicious soft sheep cheese ever. It was four months old and had been made by the owner of the farm. They milk 200 sheep in the summer up in those mountain pastures - all, of course, by hand. I'd love to see the operation. I still can't quite believe this is what I'll be doing - seems like a dream. I was also given a huge wheel of hard sheep cheese at the cheese factory - tangy and delicious. My co-volunteers call me mother cheese!

Enough for now, friends. I'll write more and include pictures of Gostivar after I move there - I'll have internet access at my house. I had to move to Macedonia to get good internet access - Marlow just had dial-up. Hope everyone is well and thriving!