An afternoon in Ohrid

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Creken Bozhik and Gezuar Krishtlindjet

Creken Bozhik and Gezuar Krishtlindjet! Or at least Boxing Day, since today is the day after Christmas. I'm having a Boxing Day party tonight and have stockings hung, if not by the chimney, at least with care. It actually wasn't Christmas in Macedonia - Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on the 7th of January. But we started the holiday season early, first with a Hanukkah party, then a Christmas party last night, and tonight a Boxing Day party! Next week I'm hoping to go to Struga for the big New Year's celebration there - it is supposed to be quite the event! We do work in the Peace Corps, but Macedonia is a country that likes celebrations, and December and January are full of them. After New Year's there is Christmas and then the old New Year, so more celebrations to come! I'm anxious to see them all.
Last week was cold with ice and snow. I've attached a picture from out my kitchen window so you can see what I get to see every day. My apartment overlooks a small park, and beyond that are the mountains. Gostivar is surrounded by three sides by mountains of varying heights - these are some of the smaller mountains. I'm hoping to get up to the sheep pastures next spring or summer.
We've had a warm wind blow in, and today the temperature is a very mild 50 degrees - it is quite lovely out. Some volunteers were going to test out the ski centers here today, and I hope the warmth hasn't scuttled those plans. The snow is completely gone here, something that does not fill me with sadness! It's treacherous walking - snow quickly turns to ice. While there is some street cleaning, pedestrians are left to their own devices on the sidewalks, and last Tuesday the town was a skating rink. I had expected a climate more like New Hampshire, but so far it's been considerably warmer.
My Christmas present here was getting internet in my apartment, so I'm no longer dependent on someone with Wifi to be able to write e-mails and blog. I also got cable TV - and have been watching CNN international as I breakfast in the morning. I'm lucky to be in a town where things are available. My big joke is that I had to come to Macedonian to get good internet service - in Marlow we were dependent on telephone modems, and here I have a wireless connection!
Life is good. Have a wonderful week of celebrations of life!

Friday, December 18, 2009

A couple of weeks ago I took a day trip down to Ohrid, which is the big resort city in Macedonia on Lake Ohrid. I met two Peace Corps friends there, and we were met by a lovely woman who is the Macedonian counterpart to a volunteer in Ohrid. She has a small tour business on the side. She loves Macedonia and Ohrid and is so happy to be able to show it off. She took us around town and gave us an impromptu tour, which was wonderful. Ohrid is a charming town. Unlike much of Macedonia which reflects its Yugoslav past in great concrete block buildings, Ohrid has retained its old charms - some small streets, old buildings, and lots of history - it's been a town for 8000 years. It's on the largest and one of the oldest lakes in Europe, Lake Ohrid. One of my friends is having a friend visit for New Year's, and Katerina had found an apartment for her to rent that was right on the lake, beautiful, and affordable. The picture above with the boats is a view from the balcony. The day was beautiful, warm, and it felt like I had landed on some other planet. I can hardly wait to go back- it's a perfect day trip from Gostivar. And at the end we were treated to the most beautiful sunset ever.

More about living in Macedonia: Electricity is very expensive compared to per capita earnings, so conservation is a way of life. It's amazing to think about how much we squander electricity. Here there are all sorts of ways to try to cut down on costs. First, there are low tariff and high tariff times, so you try to do your heavy electrical usage during the low times - 1-4 during the day and after 10 at night. My host mom would always do her ironing after 10. The hot water heaters are generally not automatic - you turn them on before you want to use them. I turn mine on when I go to bed at night so I can have a lovely warm shower in the morning. I'm lucky and have a separate small kitchen boiler for dishes, so the big one I can save just for showers. The heaters have heat absorbing stone built into them, so if you warm them during the low times they'll hold the heat all day. It also doubles as the dryer - I have a little washer in my apartment but dryers are unheard of. Everywhere you go, even at this time of year, you see laundry hanging outside of apartments. I have a dryer rack I put in front of the heater to dry my clothes, but I rotate them on and off the top of the big heater for quicker drying. All the rooms have doors so you can heat only the rooms you want. It all works well.

You wouldn't think things like stoves would be different, but it took me awhile to learn to use mine. I still don't understand it, but at least I can make it work now. Before I could get 3 burners to work, but not the big one I wanted to work or the oven. Twice I had my landlady in saying it was broken, and I finally saw the thing you have to turn on to make the oven and big burner work. It's a timer that will turn it off automatically after it's on for the time you set. The burners are different, too - solid rather than coils. They take a long time to heat up but then stay hot for a long time after they're turned off, so cooking techniques are different. There are lots of funny little things to learn!

Okay, enough for now. Hope you're all ready for Christmas!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Hi, everyone,
I've been living in Gostivar for two weeks, with unfortunately limited access to internet. I'm hoping to get it installed in my apartment this week, but you never know, or at least I never know, when things are going to happen. I think my landlady assured me that it was going to be in soon, but my Macedonian is still limited. In the meantime I wanted to let you know I was still alive and well. I've had a great time since coming here and have seen so many things I'll need to catch you up on. But for now, here are some pictures of my adorable apartment. I have it decorated for Christmas now. Christmas in Macedonia is on January 7th, so we get to celebrate it twice! I'm very comfortable and so enjoy cooking again - I had forgotten how much I like to create meals for myself. And creations they are. Most of the time I can tell what I'm buying in the grocery store, but it's still an adventure in new ingredients and different options. But on Tuesdays I go to the bazaar and load up on fruits and veggies - happily I've been munching on Clementines, which I look forward to every year around T=giving. I buy a half kilo of spinach for about a dollar or less, and a half kilo is a huge amount of spinach. I've put it in soup, salads, pasta dishes, and omelets, I gave a bunch of it away, and I still have a ton left. So far there has been an abundance of fresh fruits and veggies and food is very inexpensive. The weather, after being warm and generally sunny, turned cold on Friday and there is snow on the mountains. We got a dusting but it didn't stay. I'm hoping the farmers can continue to supply us with everything for awhile yet. My other joy here is that chickens are not locked up in cages, so the eggs have the deep orange yolks that I love and not the pale imitations we see in the markets in the States.
Shopping is much different here, too. There are many, many small shops, and finding which ones carry the things you are looking for is a challenge. But it's also a great excuse to browse and to see what everyone has. Now that it's getting close to Christmas, merchants have put up booths in the town square selling Christmas things. It always makes me smile because it brings a vivid display of colors - they have so many kinds of Christmas frou-fra to put up. I settled for a small artificial tree and bulbs, some tinsel streamers, and some blinking lights, and they make me smile at home with their cheeriness.
I've been acclimating for work - going to meetings that are about developing project proposals for rural development. They are in small villages in the area, so I am very lucky to be seeing parts of the country that most volunteers don't get to. We've been up to a mountain village in Mavrovo park twice - they want to develop tourism there and it's a gorgeous place with lots of potential. The first time we stopped by one of the most famous monasteries in Macedonia - the Monastery of St. John the Baptist. In the 8th or 9th century an icon of St. John was found in a stream, and that's why they built the Monastery there - the icon was apparently much older. It's now encased in gold and people come to pray for miracles, several of which have been attributed to St. John's intervention. It has very famous wood carving in it - carving that was done by brother's who used techniques that no one has been able to replicate. They would make 3 dimensional scenes representing stories from the Bible and from St. John's live in 3 dimensions, much like the ivory carving you see from China. I was lucky because one of the monks offered to give us a tour and explain them and he spoke perfect English. They also have relics from several saints there, including a piece of the thigh bone from St. John. The Monastery sits up on the side of the mountain and the views are extraordinary. I hadn't brought my camera with me and regret it immensely - I would have loved to give you a feel for the landscape there. The road through Mavrovo is a little like driving through the grand canyon, but with trees. The canyon has spectacular rock formations and cliffs that are dotted with caves. The park itself has an abundance of wildlife, including wolves, bobcats, bear, deer, weasels - amazing that the species have been able to survive centuries of hunting but also a testament to how inaccessibility of the landscape.
Two weekends ago I took a day trip to Ohrid, and last weekend was at a Hanukkah party in Skopje, but more about all that latter. Happy Hanukkah and a happy holiday season to all.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Swearing In

I'm now officially a PCV - Peace Corps volunteer. We were sworn in by the Ambassador to Macedonia on a very emotional night. My favorite parts of it were the speech that two volunteers wrote - one a friend from Cherkeze and another from the neighboring town of Romanovce, which was funny, emotional, and hit the core of our experiences with our host families - and the other our final tribute to our families and language and culture teachers. My host mother and father were there and it was lovely to get to say thank you to them. The oath we take reminded me of the Presidential oath. I swore to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. I have to say that being away from the US and watching a country working to develop democratic principles makes me love our Constitution even more. It is an amazing document and one most of us take for granted.

The next day was our last in Cherkeze. It was Bajram i vogel, one of the big celebrations in Muslim culture. It celebrates the end of the Hadj and Allah giving a starving family a sheep to sacrifice for food. My host mother had been preparing for two weeks, cleaning the house and cooking food. Baklava is traditionally made for the two different bajram celebrations, and I helped (well, more watched) the mother of one of our volunteers make it. She and a neighbor rolled out the phylo dough using a round table and what looks like a down until it was paper thin. They rolled out 50 layers of dough for one large pan of baklava, and every few layers I would throw on sugar and something that looked like a mixture of ground corn and flour. Every now and then we would also put in a layer of nuts. It took 1.5 hours for the two of them to put it together. Then it baked for an hour an a half, set for a day or two, and then the flavored sugar water was put on it and it was baked again - I think. I didn't see the last step, so I'm just guessing. My host mom also made a custard and rice pudding for the big day, plus sarma - stuffed cabbage - dolma - stuffed peppers - and goulash.

On the big day we got up early - at 6 am. My host mom had been up until 2 making final preparations, and hadn't gotten much sleep the night before, either. My host father's cousin from Germany was visiting, and they had to prepare for their parts in the day. We went down to the relative who shares the compound with my family and visiting for an hour or so, and then went out to watch the dad and his cousin slaughter the sheep, skin it, and butcher it. He did 4 that day. The meat is divided up and given to different members of the family and to the poor. After that I went up to a volunteer's house and we started our own bajram visiting. Visiting is the big part of bajram - everyone visits everyone else and eats the treats that they all worked so hard to make. We were able to visit 5 of the 6 host families - it was a wonderful way to say goodbye. By the end of the day our stomachs literally ached with all the baklava and puddings we had eaten. Fortunately I had had brunch at about 10:30 with my family, so something other than sweets helped, but I still was in pain!

That night my host mom, the neighbor mom and I sat around and talked. I was so pleased that I knew at least enough Albanian to converse with them. I talked about my life in America. For them, it was an amazing tale. I worked outside the home and paid someone to clean it? I had my own pension? And worst of all, I lived alone? Why didn't I live with family? Wasn't my son taking care of me? Why did everyone live so far away? Their lives are so different - not better nor worse, just very, very different. It was such a fitting end to my enriching and love-filled home stay.

The next day started with a bang. I had been unable to sleep most of the night with the excitement and nervousness of moving to site and the 100 pounds of baklava I had eaten. I got up a little before 6 and went to the bathroom and promptly broke the lock to the bathroom and locked myself in. Hmmm, standing there in my pjs, in the cold, the rest of the family sound asleep, and locked in the bathroom. Not knowing what else to do, I started pounding on the door, and fortunately the oldest daughter heard me and woke up her mom, who came out to see what the heck was going on. When I explained she laughed and got the dad, who sent the youngest daughter through the small window that opens out onto the terrace. When she couldn't open it, my host dad, who is not a small man, climbed through the 2 ft. square window with his tools. Bless his heart!! Not only could he not open the door, he also couldn't take the door handle hardware off - it was rusted in place. So he climbed back out the window, went around, and kicked the door in. I did leave with a bang. I felt like a complete idiot! But my mom laughed and said: "See, even the house doesn't want you to leave!"

Afterwards they took me early down to the bus that took me to Skopje and then to Gostivar. We cried - even the youngest who got up early so he could come down to see me off. My mom told me that any time I wanted to come home all I had to do was call and she'd sent my host dad off to Gostivar to pick me up. They are a very sweet and loving family and I will miss them.

Next blog I will tell you about Gostivar and my transition here, but enough for now. It's December - hard to believe. It makes me realize how accustomed I am to seeing Thanksgiving and Christmas advertising everywhere this time of year - it just is strange not to have that as a time marker, though I have to say it's not that I miss it, it just has been such an indication of the season that it's odd not to have it. But I've bent your ears (or eyes, I guess I should say) long enough, and I should be off.