Macedonia

Macedonia
An afternoon in Ohrid

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Travels in Macedonia


Happy Holidays, Everyone,
Sunday brunch, Macedonian style chez Wiggum: scrambled eggs with two kinds of peppers, onions and garlic, put in a lightly sauteed tortilla and topped with shredded pepper cheese (kashkaval), sheep cheese, (cirenje), and tomatoes and avocadoes - a rare treat. Yummm.

Just returned from Debar, a small town on the Albanian border, where I helped Ellen and Mere with their wonderful spelling bee. Since we aren't allowed to drive in Macedonian, most of our travel is on buses, with an occasional train trip thrown in. I write a lot about traveling on buses, because each and every trip is an adventure! The bus system here is something else. There are hundreds of bus companies in Macedonia, and each has its own system. There is no central coordinated bus scheduling, so no matter where you go, part of the fun is figuring out how to get there and then how to get back. Looking on the internet generally nets me little information, so I am reliant on other volunteers to help me with the different times, lines and rules. For example, generally round trip tickets cost less, but with some companies they are only good for a day, others a week, and others a month. You need to make sure you return on the same company you bought the ticket from - and there are often several serving the same areas. Some companies assign seats, others grab one where you can, and so on. Generally when I travel on buses I try to get a seat by myself because I'm usually hauling a backpack, purse, and bag filled with stuff, and I like the room, but I've had some of my most wonderful conversations when I'm 'forced' to take a seat with someone.

The buses themselves are usually bought used after a full life in Europe, so they often look a tad worse for wear. Seats are often broken, engines questionable, interior tattered and worn. There are two main lines from Gostivar to Skopje, one which has nice buses and a direct route to Skopje, and one which is more questionable that often goes to Skopje via Tetovo. Of course the latter company has more runs, especially on weekends, so I am often forced to take it. Once Kerry and I were going to Skopje for a meeting. Fortunately, Zhats had a direct bus that morning, as well as one that went through Tetovo. When we were ready to leave the station, however, things started looking a little sketchy. The driver couldn't get it in gear, and it took us about 5 minutes just to leave the station. Clearly, he was fighting the transmission, and the transmission seemed to be winning. We finally got out of Gostivar, but after stopping at a toll booth and starting to climb the hills on the way to Skopje, the transmission exerted its authority. The inside of the bus began to fill with an acrid odor of burning transmission, and the driver was forced to pull over. We were sitting in the middle of the bus, and as soon as it stopped everyone sitting behind us got up and ran to the front - not a particularly reassuring event. The driver continued to struggle with the transmission to no avail, and finally the other bus came upon us and pulled over so we could board it. It was full, and our bus was full, so everyone was jammed in standing in the aisle. I saw an empty seat in the back and heading for it. The woman next to it shook her head. It was raining outside, and, well, it was raining in the bus, too, directly on the seat. Still, it looked better than standing all the way to Skopje smunched between 100 others, so I perched on the edge of the seat enduring an occasional raindrop falling on me. Another time we were stopped by the police 4 times, made to go to the police garage where the bus got an inspection, off-loaded from the bus, reloaded onto the bus, off-loaded again until another bus arrived, and finally allowed to go on. An hour trip took two.

So you get the idea of some of the challenges. This weekend turned out to have a couple of eventful trips. The trip into Skopje was relatively routine - the bus was late because it had been snowing, but I had allowed time for that so arrived for my meeting on time. After the meeting we had a lovely lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Skopje, and rather than hurry, Katie, the other volunteer who was traveling to Debar, and I decided to catch the 5 o'clock combi (some buses are bus size, some are large van size and are called combis). We lounged around, but I was confident we could easily go outside to the main street and catch a cab - there was a cab stand across the street. We went out and started hailing cabs - it was late Friday afternoon on a cold day after a snowstorm. Not a good idea. All the cabs were full, and there were no cabs at the stand. Yikes! The 5 was the last bus to Debar, and if we missed it, well, it would be a disaster. We hailed cab after cab - no one was stopping. Finally, with 10 minutes to get to the station, one stopped and picked us up. Of course, traffic was also dreadful, and we had that horrible feeling of watching the minutes tick off. We called Ellen and Mere and asked them to call the combi to wait for us, and the combi driver called back but Katie, who is very good at Macedonian, couldn't understand him completely. Finally stuck in traffic but close to the station, katie got out and sprinted to the station. I finally got there, paid off the cab driver, and ran around to the station door, only to meet Katie shaking her head - they said the bus was gone. We walked outside and Katie again called the driver, they were waiting for us but where - that's what we couldn't understand. We walked around the back of the station where the exit gate was, and sure enough, there was a combi, but just as we reached it it took off. It had a red light so had to stop, so while I went to ask the gate man at the station about the combi, katie ran to check if the newly departed but stopped combi was ours. Soon, I heard Katie yelling at the top of her lungs, "Caaaaannnnnnndy". Sure enough it was ours, and we made it by the skin of our teeth.

The combi picked up passengers along the way, and pretty soon it too was crammed with people standing in the short aisleway. Katie and I were talking about food, and I mentioned Irish Soda Bread, and we heard a voice above us say, "Irish Soda Bread, that's the best." It was a young man with a heavy accent. I was trying to place it when he told us he was an American from Brooklyn! He had the heaviest Brooklyn accent I have ever heard. He was delightful - he was born in Brooklyn but his family was from Debar and they were visiting because his aunt was sick. He mentioned a couple of times how nice it was to be able to talk to someone in English, how much he missed home, though he was also fluent in Albanian and the Dibar region was his family's home. Such is the immigrant's story.

After enjoying Ellen's hospitality for the night and watching the kids at the spelling bee (they were great!), Ellen, Mere, and Katie took me to the bus station to catch the combi back to Gostivar. It was supposed to be there preparing for its 5:30 departure, but there was no sign of it. Again, we called the company, but couldn't understand what the dispatcher was saying. We asked a nice man standing close by to call for us, and he did (the gist was that the combi should come but the dispatcher wasn't sure where it was), and right when he hung up the combi pulled in. It was snowing heavily in Mavrovo, and he had been held up. He was happy to have a passenger, and I climbed in, along with a couple of other folks. They shortly got out, however, and soon it was only me and the bus driver. He signalled for me to come up and sit by him, so I did. He was Albanian, so we switched from my also non-existence Macedonian to my only a little better Albanian, and chatted our way down the road, talking about families, our children, where we were from, etc.

It was raining as we left Debar, but about 20 kilometers from Mavrovo we hit heavy snow. The roads were slick and I doubt that the tires had much tread. We slipped and slid all over the road, gathered momentum on downhills so we could make it up the uphills. It was gorgeous outside, but the driver and I soon stopped talking because he needed every ounce of concentration to stay on the road. When we finally made it to Mavrovo we met a plow truck, and things were marginally better after that. He asked if I would like to stop and get a cup of coffee and I agreed, but in Mavrovo two new passengers were waiting so the cup of coffee was put off. We made it down the mountain, only to run into a bank of heavy fog which reduced visibility to a few feet, and finally into Gostivar - home........I owe the driver a cup of coffee still - he wanted one still but I was beat and just wanted t get home.

Adventure after adventure - that's part of what makes this so fun. Only a part, though. There are so many things that contribute to making this such a memorable time in my life. Although I always wanted to be in the Peace Corps, I never quite believed it would happen nor did I have any idea what it really would be like.

I wish you all the happiest of holidays. The hard part of service is being away from family and friends, especially at special times like Christmas! May Santa Claus climb up your wall and leave you lots of fabulous gifts. I love you all and miss you. Have a wonderful 2011 with lots of positive adventures yourselves!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Albanian History

I met a man the other day who had fought in the 2001 conflict for the Balli Kombetar. Balli Kombetar means Forehead of the People and was a resistance group in WWII, but it is the name of the group that fought in 2001 to unify Albania back to the borders it had from 1941-1943. In WWII they collaborated with the Nazis because they were afraid that the allies would give territories back to Bulgaria and Serbia, which is, in a way, exactly what happened - except it was to Yugoslavia. The partisans under Enver Hozha and Tito allied with the Allies, and thus we ended up with both Albania and Yugoslavia under communism. Anyway, the article I was reading referenced an ancient set of laws that guided the Balli Kombetar, the Kunan of Lek, and I was intrigued.

The internet is a wonderful thing. Wikipedia had a reference to the Kunan of Lek. It is a set of laws that governed all parts of Albanian life, and probably started around the 9th century. In the early 1400's a minister under Skenderbeg, the Albanian hero who fought the Turks, brought all the laws together under one legal umbrella, and the Kunan of Lek Kukagjini was born. The laws governed all parts of Albanian life, and were passed down orally generation after generation until the Albanian alphabet was developed in 1912, when it finally was written. What is so interesting to me is that much of Albanian life and their customs reflect the Kunan, and it explains so much.

The Kanun is based on four pillars:

I realize now how I insulted the honor of my host dad by carrying my dishes to the sink. As a guest in his house, I was a member of the family, and women over 60 are not supposed to do anything but be tended by the daughters in the house. When I continued to put my dishes in the sink, I violated his honor. Houses are built they way they are both because extended family/kin loyalty is so important and because part of the kanun defined the ways to conduct blood feuds. Blood feuds were a part of society - if one's honor was offended by another man badly enough, you had to kill him, and if someone killed your relative, you had to kill them back. But there were definite rules - a man could not be killed in his home, thus homes were built as compounds with big walls around them. There were ways of getting safe passage for awhile - oaths called besas, and sometimes it was possible to mediate or buy your way out of a blood feud, but many went on for generations.

The gender roles were strictly defined. Only men could carry weapons, and women essentially belonged to their husbands families. Marriage was arranged - this predated Islam and held true for Catholics as well. When a woman married, it was custom that the bride's family give the groom a bullet, so that if she cheated on him he could shoot her with her family's blessing. Countries were defined by common language and heritage - one of the reasons that it is difficult for Albanians to identify themselves as anything but Albanians - never Macedonian or Montenegran.

Hospitality is huge here - if you are accepted into an Albanian's home you are treated like a king or queen. It is one of the reasons that Albania was the only Nazi occupied country in WWII that ended up with a larger Jewish population after the war than before the war - not only did they protect their few Jewish citizens but with their commandment to help the weak and helpless they accepted a number of Jews seeking asylum into their country.

It is fascinating to me to see how an oral tradition handed down over the centuries still has such a strong hold, probably largely unconscious, on the culture of Albania. But then it makes me wonder - how many unconscious ancient customs do we act out - things handed down generations ago from England, Germany, and other ancestral homes?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Another Glorious Weekend




My friend Happie called me Friday afternoon and invited me to come down to Makedonski Brod to visit and go to the Zrze monastery since it was going to be a beautiful weekend. So after work I packed up and caught the 5:30 combi and I am so glad I did. It was a spectacular weekend. Saturday morning we got up and caught a cab with a random cabbie waiting by the Mak Brod Center. It was the first of several 'blessings' for the day. He agreed to take us to Zrze, but warned us we would have to walk the last kilometer or so up the mountain to the monastery. That was fine. We went from an okay road, to a not so good road, to a pretty bad road, and reached Zrze. Zrze, like many small remote villages in Macedonia, is dying. I had thought maybe we could pick up something to eat and drink there before our steep hike, but there were no stores that I saw. Many houses were abandoned and falling apart. We saw no one under 45 living there, and indeed, no young people do live there. A quick side note, someone told me that the reason that villages like these died in Spain was because of universal education. While small villages can support primary schools, once children start high school they are sent away to board at the high school in the nearest city. Often times parents follow them there, but even if they don't, the children never return to live the hard-scrabble farm life. They move to the cities to seek better opportunities and more stimulation. The same is true in Macedonia. So slowly, as the older people die, the villages die. Villages that once had hundreds of residents are now down to a handful and soon will disappear forever, along with that way of life. But back to my tale....

Smiler (pronounced smeelar) stopped and asked a resident about the road up to the monastery. The man shrugged, and said he could make it with his car, so Smiler started up. The road was truly terrible, but Smiler was determined. It turned out that he had grown up in Zrze, and the last time he had been to the monastery was 30 years ago, and he wanted to see it as well! So up we went, saved a strenuous (and hungry and thirsty) hike, to one of the most beautiful places in the world.

The monastery is currently inhabited by 8 monks who are busy restoring the archaeological features. It was first settled in caves in the rock cliff under an ancient fort in the 9th century. If you look at the picture, you can see the monks cells and a cave church in the rock. There was also an old basilica that was built up on the ledge in the 5th century that they are busy excavating - if you look on my facebook page you can see more pictures. One of the monks came out and gave us a tour - he spoke very good English. Most monks in Macedonia are young, because while the church wasn't shut down under Tito, neither was it encouraged. Only during the past 20 years or so have the monasteries been repopulated with young monks. Anyway, in the 14th century the current church was built with its beautiful icons and paintings. There are two paintings of Jesus and Mary by the altar which have a miracle attributed to them. Mary's painting showed her playing with Jesus - a fairly unusual depiction. For 3 days after the paintings were placed in their proper place by the altar, the monks would enter to find that the paintings had switched places. Mary finally spoke to one of the monks and told him that she needed to be on the right side of the altar instead of her customary left spot so her back wouldn't be turned to the picture of Jesus, and so it is today. The monk gave us another blessing - a small book on the monastery, and they gave us some mountain tea to enjoy under a tree in the courtyard. It was magical.

When we headed back we were starving, so we had Smiler take us to a new restaurant built by a friend of Happies by the Peshar Peshka cave - our third blessing. They are building some guest cabins there, but after the workers ate, we had the place to ourselves. We sat on the balcony in the sunshine until the sun went down, then our host came out and ushered us in by the wood stove. We had mixed salad - in Macedonia that's shredded cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, carrots, and soft white cheese - to start off, then asked the owner/chef to choose our main course. He brought out уваци, a traditional Macedonian dish that is a rolled chicken breast stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon, and a homemade kolbasa - both were the best I've had yet in Macedonia. Biljana and Goce sat and talked to us as we ate, and partway through the meal Biljana's mother came out with a благо that she had made for us - a sweet coconut cake soaked in the sugar water that they use for most desserts - think baklava for an idea of what the syrup is like. We were stuffed, but it too was delicious not to eat. She had brought out about 8 pieces for us, and when we could each only eat one, they wrapped up the rest for us to take. That meal, plus a big glass of rakija each, cost about 8 dollars each - I shall miss the prices of good meals when I return home. It was such a pleasurable meal - like many Macedonian meals it stretched out over a couple of hours - made more special by the hospitality of our hosts and the intimate feeling of our surroundings. On so many days here I blink my eyes to remind myself it is all real - bouncing on combis squeezed between Macedonians or Albanians, their patience and delight in having conversations with me, seeing such beauty, and feeling such warmth from everyone. I wish I could send each and every one of you the sensations I experience here - they are truly indescribable.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Oct. and Nov.





Hi, everyone,
I know it's been forever since I've written, but it's been a busy month. Tomorrow is Kurban Bajram, or little Bajram. The two Bajrams will always resonate with me, because I moved in with my Albanian host family right before the big Bajram, and moved out the day after little Bajram. Thanksgiving marks half of my service time - it will be a year since we were sworn in as Peace Corps volunteers. The Mak-13's (and the Mak 12's who extended a year) are going home, and it's like losing family. They were our guides and introduced us to Macedonia, and I will forever be grateful for their welcoming us into the PC family. Mbarre rrugen, everyone.

One reason I was so busy was that I went back to the States for two weeks and visited sisters, parents and kids. What a great time! It feels like teleporting from one world into another (but not as quick - the trip home took 24 hours). Every part of it was wonderful. It was especially nice to see my parents. They have had significant health problems since I've been gone - not unexpected, given their age - and it has been difficult to be so far away. But they both looked good and we had a rewarding visit.

Talk about fabulous - San Fran and NYC were both great fun. Chris was able to arrange for Pixar to have a luxury box at the Oakland Raiders/Seahawks game, and Dave, Karen and Kellen came down to see the game with us. We feasted and watched the Seahawks lose badly, but it was great fun. He then gave us a tour of Pixar. The picture above is him in Alcatraz - I'd never gone and wanted to. Next was 3 days in NYC, where Kacy took me for a mani, pedi and massage. That night we went to a play and saw Laura Linney. It was excellent and thought provoking. It was great to see the kids' new apartments and offices - a lot has changed since I left.

Two seminars - one on sustainable tourism and one on sustainable forestry - buttressed my trip home. Above is a picture of my Kosovar friends. One day I will go visit them, but I fear it will have to wait until I'm done with Peace Corps. Kosovo is off limits to us. Everyone I have met from Kosovo has been so nice, though, and I can't wait until I can get up to visit.

Finally, last weekend I went down to Demir Kapija for a lamb roast that my friend Tracy had arranged. We all brought some a variety of things to eat or to make, and did we feast. Friday night we took ingredients we had brought to a place that makes pizza with a brick oven. We gave them the ingredients and instructed them on which ingredient we wanted on what pizza. They made the crust, added the ingredients as instructed, and then baked them in their oven. Talk about gourmet pizzas! We had a pepper pizza with fresh onions, peppers, ajvar, and the regular fixings, a garlic pizza, a gorgonzola, bacon and carmelized onion pizza, a cheese pizza, and one other yummy one whose ingredients I now can't remember. They were amazing. The next day we got up and got the combi out to Demir Kapija and dropped off the food for the lamb roast. We then went out for a short hike and condor watching. It was a pristine fall day - warm, blue sky, the kind of a day where you are so happy to be alive and outside. We then returned for the roast. The owner of the restaurant had been getting the brick oven heated and ready, and we roasted the lamb and a variety of root veggies. It was the best lamb I'd ever eaten, succulent, flavorful, with juices oozing everywhere, and done perfectly. It was possibly the best meal I have ever eaten.

Now that I've made you all hungry, I think I"ll go eat lunch. Have a great day!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Simplicity




You begin to realize shortly after getting here how much you consume and how unnecessary some of it is. One of the things that amuses me is how to invent uses for common things. For example, plastic water bottles. They are just starting to recycle plastic here, but it isn't widespread and you do have a work some to find plastic recycling bins in big cities - forget about villages. But you find plastic everywhere - Coke and other soda producers have definitely had a huge impact on Macedonian beverage selection. When I walk along the Vardar, there are places where the tree roots have reached out and caught islands of plastic bottles. Interestingly, the Roma are the big recyclers here - they do go around and gather bottles to make money. But anyway, I like to find a variety of ways to reuse plastic bottles. So far I use them to store water (we distill water here - Gostivar's water supply was breached last spring), for a hot water bottle (indispensable in the winter), a sprinkling bottle for ironing (who needs a spray bottle - just poke some holes in a bottle cap), an exercise ball (I developed plantar fasciitis and use the bottle with water in it instead of a tennis ball to exercise my foot), and, of course, a plant watering can. I never realized they were so golden!! Mail me your uses - I'm sure there are more I'm not thinking about.

It's pepper season here. Peppers are a huge staple for people in Macedonia. They roast them and can different recipes of slow cooked peppers. The main dish is called ajvar - the peppers are cooked over an outdoor bbq for hours. There are more kinds of peppers here than you can imagine - the bazaar is a red, green, yellow, pink rainbow of pepper colors and shapes. The main one, though is the red pepper above, which is also often dried for winter use. People use all kinds of nooks and crannies to hang their peppers, and it adds extra color to the city.

I also love the brooms they use here. The one above was being used by a street cleaner. Ah, twig technology - when you need a new one, just go out and collect twigs.

Finally I included a picture of the big hero of Albania - Shkenderbej - not sure of the correct spelling. Does he look like a big Viking or what?

Went to a week of seminars on tourism. It's interesting to hear about all the new trends - ecotourism, adventure tourism, rural tourism, agrotourism, and my favorite, integrated relational tourism. The last refers to tourism where you stay in a small venue, like a b&b or a family, and get to know the area, people and culture. Our lecturer was a professor from Malta, and now I'm dying to go to Malta and Sicily!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Harvest Festival in Gostivar




Hello, everyone, I still am alive!!! September flew by in a flash, filled with planning for the Harvest Festival, new volunteers arriving and another two weeks of sustainable agriculture seminars. In fact, so much happened in September we were cadging time in order to get the planning for the Festival done. I'm hoping to get some pictures up on my Facebook site soon. We are lucky enough to have a professional photographer in PC Macedonia - my friend Phil. He took hundreds of pictures while I was running around with my head cut off. But more about that later.

First more about the month. When September came it was as if someone told mother nature it was fall. In a day the weather turned from hot and summery to cool, rainy, and autumnal. My PC heater is turned on, blankets piled on my bed, and I'm layering my clothes. What happened to gentle transitions? Not this year, not in Macedonia.

The really fun part of the month was welcoming the new volunteers. As the facilitator of the Volunteer Support Network, I got to welcome them when they first arrived in the hotel. I'd already been in contact with all the over 60's, it was fun watching the bus roll in and all my new friends climb off the bus. Part of the fun was reliving that experience. I remember it very well, the anxiety and excitement blended in with trying to remember 30+ new names and faces. I remember the surprise at seeing Macedonia for the first time - I had pictured it looking like New Hampshire, but the topography and the natural background were very different, not to mention the houses and villages. And settling in with the host family - what a wonderful challenge that is. Knowing what they had facing them was part of the fun, and we worked hard to alleviate as much anxiety as possible.

Welcoming the newbies came right in the middle of another 2 weeks of sustainable agriculture seminars. We had wonderful lecturers from Belgium and the Azores, but their lectures often just highlighted the difference between the highly industrialized Western Europe and Macedonia. There were several hours of lecture on animal welfare legislation in Europe. Halfway through the first one I asked Luli if any of the lecture made sense to him. Unsurprisingly, it didn't. Thinking from the point of view of an animal is a luxury for poor countries. And I must admit, some of the laws didn't make sense to me, either. Things we used to do pretty routinely on the farm are now against the law in Europe.

And finally, the 5K fun run and Harvest Festival. Yikes! We were racing around up until it started putting things in place. Two days before the race we talked to the schools, and if the schools hadn't participated, we would have had about 15 runners. As it was, we had 130 who finished - a big success. The day before the festival, the people who were going to put up the booths threatened to pull out, so we had to run into Skopje to placate them. Plans changed, people were in and out, how we did things was adjusted, and then it happened. And amazingly all went well. We had t-shirts for the runners and those were popular items - a free t-shirt in Macedonia is like gold. But they looked great. The pictures above are Luli and my friend Kerry in race headquarters ready to sign up the runners, me and my wonderful bakery woman who came to the festival because I invited her, and me with the Cegrani folk group who entertained. I'm still recovering. But off to more things. I have another two weeks of sustainable agriculture, this time about rural tourism. When I can, I help Kerry teach English to the employees of the local emergency management center. And who knows what else will pop up.

Friday, August 27, 2010



You never know what's going to happen in Macedonia. Yesterday I was returning from Ohrid. I'd caught the bus that drops me off by the side of the highway outside of Gostivar, forlorn and smattered by dust as the bus pulls away. Because it was a highway drop bus, I'd carried my backpack and swimming bag aboard the bus with me, hoping that I could have a row all for myself and my stuff. We pulled out of the Ohrid bus stop - so far so good, the bus wasn't full and no one challenged me for the space by me. We picked up a couple of passengers along the way as we left Ohrid, but, phew, still had my spot. I put on my Ipod headphones and shut out the world - it's a 2.5 hour, hot trip. When we pulled into Kichevo some people got off the bus and some on. I felt safe - the only person who didn't have a seat was a man, and they usually sit with other men. But before I knew it, he was standing by me saying "Moshe?" I looked up in some distress and he saw all my stuff and started to turn away, but then turned back and I made room for him. Dang......

We rode up to the rest stop on top of the mountain in silence. After we reboarded I noticed him talking to the other American on the bus, so when he returned I decided to be at least a little more friendly. And what a treat it was! He was a charming young man who spoke English. He was an Albanian from Kichevo who had studied bioengineering for the past 6 or 7 years in Austria, and is going this fall for his masters in Switzerland. There he will do research on the role of a couple of enzymes in attaching prions in the brain for such things as mad cow disease and other brain diseases. His hope for the future is to go for his PhD in the US where he would really like to work on autism research. He was thinking he'd like to go to Boston or LA, but I tried to talk him into Berkeley and the Bay area. Like many Macedonians,however, he is a mad basketball fan, and would die to see a Lakers game in person. We had the best conversation. Ipods are the curse of the modern world......

I was returning from Ohrid after attending another of the many festivals. Last week the Sheepbreeders Association had helped put on the annual wine and cheese festival, and this week was the choral festival. The both festivals were great! For the choral festival, groups from all over Europe - Lithuania, Russia, Romania,etc., come to Ohrid for a competition, and afterwards wander through the tourist areas, find a spot, set up, and sing. Many wear their national costumes and carry their flags. The group above is a youth group from Spain. We just walked around going from one group to another listening to fantastic music. As Benson said, whoever thought that we'd be in Macedonia listening to a Czech group sing salsa music? We missed the group from the Congo, but heard groups from Switzerland, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Spain, and some others we weren't sure of. It's an amazing world!

Monday, August 23, 2010

The End of Summer


Last night, I actually felt cold - the first time in a long time. It's still warm and sunny, but the hints of the end of summer are here. Most of the big cars with EU license plates are gone, the traffic is not crazy, families have been putting their loved ones on buses to return to the EU. Last weekend I was in Ohrid again for the wine and cheese festival, and I shall return on Thursday for the final choral production of the summer. Tomatoes, peppers, egg plants and melons crowd the fruit and vegetable stands, and the apples are big and heavy on the trees. Next week school starts again.

With the end of summer, a new group of Peace Corps volunteers prepare to change their lives. Thirty-nine new volunteers will meet on Sept. 9th in Philadelphia and on the 11th start the long journey to their new home. It hardly seems possible that I have been here for almost a year. I remember so clearly the stress of trying to get everything done, the nervousness of facing the unknown, and the sadness of saying goodbye to my friends and family. I also remember how accomplished the volunteers who came before us seemed to be - something I definitely do not feel. But it will be exciting to get to know the new volunteers - Macedonia is a very small country the other volunteers are our family here.

It's also Ramadan. Every year it moves up 10 days, so this year it started on the 11th of August. Last year we arrived at our host families right at the end of Ramadan, and experienced just a bit of it before the big Bajram celebration. During the holy month of Ramadan, observant Muslims don't eat or drink during the day. They generally get up at around 3am to have a bite, and then as soon as the Hoxha calls the last evening prayer, they eat dinner. It's hard for me to imagine living for a month that way, but especially in the heat. Many rest for most the day, and then come to life at night after eating. But it still is a big challenge. It is a month of knowing what it's like to have little and be always hungry, and to think of others, something all of us should do.

The sad thing about this time is the group before us is preparing to leave. They will be here until November and December, but they just had their close of service conference and the wheels are in motion for them to depart. Next year it will be me - the days move both so slowly and so quickly. I still feel so much like a newcomer.

Just got back from buying some chicken breasts at my butcher (where I have to order in Macedonian) and my baker (where I have to order in Albanian). For months in the winter I baked my own bread, missing the multigrain chewy breads of home. But now I shall return all roly-poly (or perhaps, more roly-poly). Once I started buying bread at this bakery, all thoughts of making my own have vanished. Sure, it's white bread, but warm, freshly baked, with a chewy crust - well, I've talked about this before, so I won't go on. But it is always a treat to bring it home and snarf down on it. There will be many things I miss about Macedonia.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Hot Time, Summer in the City



Hot Time, Summer in the City....Macedonia has hot, humid summers. The weather has been coming from the southwest and zaps my energy. When I go outside during the day, there are a few people on the streets, but not many, and when I return home, I'm soaking.
But at Night It's a Different Tale...Macedonians handle the weather by staying in most of the day. The minute it starts to cool off at night, though, everyone comes out. The streets are flooded with families and young people. A doughnut maker has a stand selling a basket of fresh donuts for about 75 cents, and another vendor sells hot roasted corn. In August, the Macedonian diaspora returns home. Suddenly there are large cars with EU license plates crowding the streets, and I start noticing tourists. 'Humph, they're not from here." It's not my country, but I do get possessive with this sudden onslaught of strangers.
"Go out, go out and find a girl".....It's wedding time. Although it probably means they'll live apart, now is the time when those working elsewhere get married. Everyday you hear drums, honking and gunfire or fireworks, and you know there's been another wedding. Weddings are 3 day events, and end with a large party in a special restaurant. But first, there are rituals the women go through, the men go through, the couple goes through - none of it in a mosque. Part of the nightly parade, too, are people looking for partners. Everyone walks the streets in groups, talking, meeting friends, and meeting each other. Today begins Ramadan, so I expect things will slow down, but I'll have to wait and see.
Spent the weekend in Ohrid again, and went to a concert where the cousin of a friend headlined. He's a jazz funk guitarist and vocalist, and lives now in NYC, just a block or so from Kacy. The concert was in the old Roman amphitheater in Ohrid, and we sat on ancient stone seats that have been there for centuries. Sitting close by was the President of Macedonia and his entourage - very little security, though dogs did sniff for bombs before he arrived. Back now in Gostivar, heading over to Luli's to plan the Harvest Festival....

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Holocaust

I grew up with the holocaust. Born in 1946, I grew up with Ann Frank, pictures of survivors of concentration camps, and a sense of outrage. But it was all abstract. Living in Macedonia has made it more real.

Macedonia used to have a Jewish community. A lot of it was centered around Bitola in southern Macedonia which was the center of the area during the Ottoman Empire and until WWII. When Clark and I drove into town, Kate pointed out a large Jewish cemetery on a hill. She also told us that one night during the war, the Bulgarians came and rounded up all the Jews, even those in hospitals, and put them on trucks and trains and sent them to Trblinka. Few ever came back. Now there are no synagogues in Macedonia, just a Jewish Cultural Center in Skopje where Macedonian Jews and visitors go to meet and celebrate the Holy Days. With so few choices, many children and grandchildren of the survivors are marrying Orthodox Macedonian, and I wonder if eventually survivors descendants will be absorbed. Who then in Macedonia will remember?

Friday, July 23, 2010



Last week my nephew Clark visited and I had the chance to show him Macedonia. After a day and a half at Ohrid, we headed over to the wine road, making a few stops along the way. Macedonia was a huge wine growing area before the Ottomans moved in and pretty much did away with it except for what farmers made for themselves. But after the Turks left, wine came back. For many years they produced bulk reds that they exported to Germany, but now things are changing. In the last 5 years big money has been pouring into the Macedonian wineries, and they are developing a reputation for their own wines and varietals.

We stayed at a new winery called Popuva Kula, which sits up on a hill and looks over the valley and vineyards of Dimar Kapija. We had big, delicious breakfasts out on the veranda, savoring our coffee and conversation. Then we set out for the two wineries we would visit. The first was started by the King of Serbia before WWI. Knowing Macedonia's history, he wanted to impress his friends by producing fine wines to give to them, and built a summer home in the valley. He named the winery after his wife - Vinarija. We did not degustate there, and it's a good thing. In Macedonia, you only can do one degustation a day.(Don't you love that word - here they don't use the word tasting, the degustate!) Next we stopped in a Tikves, the biggest winery in Macedonia. While it still produces wines that you uncork by flipping off a bottle cap, they are now gearing up to become a serious winery and tourist destination.

For 10 euros a piece, you get the plate of cheeses and meats above plus several glasses of wine. 4 of us officially paid, but the winemaster gave everyone in our party, including the taxi driver, wine, and we shared the food among all 7 of us. When you sample wines, they don't give you small sips - you drink glasses. We had 6 or 7 different wines, then they gave us some rakija, which is their distilled wine - like whiskey - and then we topped it off with an after dinner drink. We were laughing and giggling and having a great time - turned out the winemaster was our guide's 3rd cousin that she hadn't seen in 12 years! Macedonia is a small country. When we finished, it must have been about 1 pm, and feeling no pain, we headed to a swimming hold by a cold spring in a local river. We spent the afternoon cooling off by the river, then walked back through the woods to an amazing restaurant where we feasted on some delicious fish, pork and chicken, along with salads and other goodies. It was the most incredible day. So everyone out there, come to Macedonia and enjoy the good life!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Sheep Day



video
Last Friday and Saturday I participated in Sheep and Goat Day up on Bistra Mountain, not too far from where I live. Friday was a seminar for farmers and slaughterhouse owners called "Rating sheep carcasses in slaughterhouses". It was put on by an EU NGO (notice now how all these acronyms are part of my life?), and it was primarily in English with Albanian and Macedonian translation. It may sound uninteresting to most of you, but to me it was fascinating and important. We had a speaker from Spain who talked about the system (poor translators - his English was very heavily accented and often hard to understand) and how it's being implemented in Spain, one from Macedonia about his study of sheep carcasses in slaughterhouses in Macedonia, and one from the ministry of agriculture in Croatia, which has recently implemented the system. The system is a rating of 5 levels of conformation and then levels of fat, much like the American system. Sounds innocuous, but think of the implications. The best sheep carcass in Macedonia only made the middle rating - good - because here they are grown naturally. Where rating systems are applied, horrible things happen - all of a sudden farmers have to do whatever they can to make the animals meet the higher standards, like feed growth supplements to make them grow fatter and bigger faster. It's what has ruined American meat, all in the name of consumer protection and consistency. And the slaughterhouse people were outraged - it will put them out of business to add the extra costs, and indeed, in the United States, small independent slaughterhouses have gone out of business because they can't compete with mega-regional slaughterhouses who can cut costs by having everything super mechanized and efficient. The cost of that to us is high - they're also harder to regulate and all sorts of really terrible things happen. It's why we have so much more e-coli worries now. And most of the lambs here are sold directly from the farms to the consumer, who often butcher and cut the meat up themselves. Anyway, it's another example of the conflict between traditional family based farming and agribusiness that is being played out here in the name of EU accession.
Saturday was the sheep festival - much more fun! It was held in one of the high pastures above the treeline on Bistra Mountain. Spectacular setting, and I got to see sheep, horses, and the gorgeous Sharplanina dogs. They had all kinds of entertainment, including traditional wrestling - that's me with the winner above. I've also included a video showing the preliminaries before the bouts begin. It's an interesting ceremony. The wrestlers themselves are absolutely soaked in sunflower oil - so much so that they often can't see what they're doing because they have oil in their eyes. At one point one of the wrestlers had accidentally switched opponents and couldn't see he was wrestling the wrong guy! They also had milking and shearing contests, served a free breakfast to everyone who came, and because we were part of the planning group, we got to eat all the lamb we wanted, as well as roasted peppers, spanikopija, and other local dishes. It was a wonderful day to be outside surrounded by beauty, and it was great to finally get to see some of the high pastures.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Business meetings and the 4th of July




I've talked a bit before about business meetings in Macedonia, and thought I'd elaborate. On Friday, Luli, Faton and I went to Vrapchiste to work with the municipality there and with one from Albania on a cross border grant proposal. Four men arrived from Belesh, a small municipality in the heart of Albania which has dozens of lakes, to talk about developing a project around rehabbing a lakefront park. First everyone shakes hands - "Mire mengjesi, si jeni?" After introductions, the man that gets coffee for everyone comes in and gets our orders, and in a few minutes we all have coffee, tea or water in front of us. The task for the day was to identify the project for the two municipalities, identify what kind of project it was (increasing tourism, preserving natural resources, etc.) and then write a logic model. The grant will be written in English because it's an EU grant, but only Luli, Faton, Bari and I speak any English. The meeting was conducted in Albanian, and I listened hard to try to get the gist of what everyone was saying with Faton occasionally stopping to catch me up. After identifying the projects and what type they were, Faton left for another meeting and several of the men took a break to go to the mosque since it was Friday. I walked around the town and bought a snack in Macedonian shop - all the Albanian ones were closed for prayer. After everyone returned, Luli had to leave, and the rest of us started hammering out a logic model, a challenge in any language. But we got done at about 3, and then headed out for lunch - the picture above is me and my meeting partners at the restaurant. This was a pretty typical meeting - trying to work out details of projects to improve the economic situation of Macedonia. Grants are a huge way of life here, with the EU and other countries pouring in funds to try to get Macedonia up to EU standards, but as anyone who has worked with grants knows, it's a double edged sword. There are very technical requirements to writing a grant, and you must find a grant to match what you want to do. Often NGO's here have what's called mission creep - they broaden their mission to match the grants they need to keep going. It's a hard way to operate and there are many, many NGO's that have gotten started on a grant but have been unable to sustain operations after funding dries up.

We celebrated the 4th of July here on both the 3rd and the 4th! The US Embassy in Skopje had a 4th of July celebration on the 3rd, and a few of us PC volunteers went. That's us above with the Ambassador. They grilled hamburgers and hotdogs and everyone brought side dishes - the food was fabulous. Macedonia has hamburgers, but they use a mix of beef and pork meet and season them differently, and they just don't taste the same. It was wonderful to have that taste of home!

On the 4th, the American Corner in Tetovo put on a 4th of July celebration for the citizens of Tetovo. There was an early morning hike up to the fort above town, two clowns to entertain the children and then children's games, a concert and fireworks. You might be able to tell which part I contributed to. Happie, the other clown, and I had a very interesting day! We got ready in Gostivar and then went to the bus station to take the bus up to Tetovo. One ethnic Turk, who is irritated with the US for its current relationship with Turkey, called the police to come and check us out and make sure we weren't terrorists. They don't really have many clowns here, so we were quite the novelty! A woman on the bus had her daughter stand by us for pictures, and I was interviewed by Macedonian TV. Their first question was "Why are you dressed like the devil and how does this relate to the children?" Yikes! I traded in my horns for an Uncle Sam hat and went to play with the children, who at first were pretty terrified by this crazy woman, but by the end we were playing together and having a great time! Afterwards Happie and I went over to MacDonalds - yes, there is a McD's in Tetovo - to have lunch, and the clerks kept staring at us and giggling. One of their little girls came over to our table to see us, and we chatted for awhile in my limited Albanian. Afterward we walked through town to a bus stop and flagged down a bus - all in our clown faces. I'm sure today much of Western Macedonia is talking about this weird sight they saw on Sunday......

My nephew Clark arrives on Saturday for a visit - I'm very excited to see him and show him some of Macedonia. I'll catch you up on my adventures after he heads back to the States!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A wilted rose


Yikes! The weather here has been steamy - 90's to 100's for the past several days. As I sit and write this, sweat is flowing from every pore...
Yesterday to escape the heat, I took a combi ride up to visit a friend in Debar. Combis are a mainstay of transportation from the hubs to the smaller villages and towns, and this combi was like many others. The driver pretty much knew everyone but me, knew their schedules, and where they were going. There were about 15 of us, and at the beginning, I wasn't certain it was an auspicious day to travel. The early bus to Ohrid came in from Skopje listing heavily to one side. I was certain it had a flat, but when it left, it was still listing. It took the bus heading to Skopje 3 tries to get it into reverse gear - it just didn't want to go. These are very used buses. But ours started up and headed out. Right as we got out of Gostivar, the driver got a call. Someone had missed the bus, so we pulled over to the side and waited until her son drove her out to us and she climbed in. People in combis don't open windows - breezes are thought to be bad and cause all sorts of illnesses, so the inside was like a sauna with fully clothed people. The driver did open his window to smoke, thank heavens, but when he was done he closed it.

The ride up to Debar is one of my favorites through the Mavrovo National Park, and I've written about it before. It follows the crystalline Radika River through a canyon past two lakes. It's a spectacular ride. What captured my attention this time, however, was less the scenery than the people and critters along the way. They embodied the agricultural economy here. First we passed a man on a horse with the homemade wooden saddles they have here. The man was riding and strapped to the side was a chain saw - it's wood gathering season. They so symbolized the mixture here between the modern and the ancient. There and back, we passed many people carrying or using scythes to harvest the hay - men and women cutting, raking, stacking and tying off hay stacks, all by hand in 90+ degree heat, the women dressed in long skirts with aprons, long sleeved blouses and head scarves. We passed by many of my favorite places - Mavrovo village, Rostyshe, Jance, all places I have been to and/or know people. At one point, 4 horses ran free across the road. One had a bell around its neck to help the farmer find them when he needs them. Farther on we had to stop for a farmer herding his cows up the road - with the river on one side and canyon walls on the other, there just wasn't room for all of us. The combi driver carefully picked his way through the herd. Later on we passed a flock of sheep being driven to high pastures up on the mountains. Everywhere people were working, reclaiming wood from the many slides that had happened during the spring, tending their gardens, getting ready now in this heat what they need for the cold winter to come. It was a hot, sweaty but magical ride, and I had a delightful visit with my friend watching her 'sister' play in the little kiddie pool - the delight of the young is hard to beat.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Ohrid, Sveti Naum, and Gostivar




Two weekends ago I was again in Ohrid, a town I love. It has all the character of an old European city on a lake - small cobblestone streets, little alley and stairways, ancient, historic sites, all on a beautiful lake. Ohrid is a spiritual place, and it is said it has 365 churches, one for every day of the year. The reason is that it was the center of the Orthodox religion before the Ottoman Empire conquered it, and its influence spread from Southern Russia through Greece. You live and breathe history there, and this time it was also teeming with flowers everywhere you looked. We spent a lot of time in the restaurant above, drinking a glass of wine and eating plashitsa, little baby trout that melted in your mouth. Life is good.

One day we meandered down and caught a boat down to Sveti Naum. The river Drim enters the lake there and travels the length intact before flowing out the other end in Struga. Sveti Naum is a monastery in a beautiful spot, cool, refreshing, and charming as well. It used to be in Albania, but was such a sacred spot to Macedonians that they bought it! The boat ride was gorgeous. I put in a picture of me so you can see how long my hair is! The big surprise when I grew my hair out was that it wasn't all white - in fact, once I was looking at it and couldn't figure out what I'd gotten in my hair, and then realized that what I was seeing was those few hairs that were still brown. It had been about 30 years since I'd seen them!

I talked a little last time about the shops I go to, and figured I tell you a bit more about shopping. Although big supermarkets are moving in, in Gostivar there still are all the small shops. I go to the meat shop to buy meat, and watch as they grind it up for me into hamburger, cut into pieces for goulash, or slice into rather tough little steaks for my petite BBQ. I go to the bread shop in the afternoons to visit my friend there and get my hot loaves of bread and sometimes a little treat as well. The loaves cost 20 MKD, or about 50 cents - food is very cheap here. I bought a kilo of tomatoes the other day for 50 cents and have been making tomato and cuke salads. The cheese store has cheeses from ricotta and mozarella to chocolate to sheep cheese. They also have the best yogurt. And I've already written about the bazaar for the fresh fruits and veggies - peaches are just starting to come in! There are also fruit and vegetable markets through out the town. There are very few canned goods, and there are may times I miss being able to go into the pantry to open up a can of something. But the food is fresh and good, and it makes me cook what I'm hungry for. I just finished a big pot of homemade baked beans - excellent beanies and wienies if I do say so myself. Good thing I live alone......

Sunday, June 6, 2010


I just returned home from a week and Struga and Ohrid, and as much fun as I had there with my friends, it was good to return home. What makes somewhere a home? I have been pondering that since I returned. Certainly part of it is familiarity - my own bed, even if it is a couch bed, seeing how my plants have grown since I left, fixing my own food - but there is something deeper. After getting home, I went out to do some chores. As I crossed by the central square in Gostivar, the 3 Turkish girls I had escorted to Skopje for the spelling bee ran out calling my name, and we chatted. I walked a little down the street, and the psychology graduate student who is helping with the girls camp called my name and we talked for a bit. I went into my cheese store and the woman there greeted me warmly, as she always does, and helped me find the cheese I was looking for. The woman from the bread shop asked me where I was from and what I was doing in Macedonia, and we tried, as best as we could, to communicate. My counterpart and his wife, friends, sent me e-mails. Home is a sense of belonging, and it goes beyond language - to me, all these people were part of being home. The man at the import store who is always asking me and my friends to have coffee with him, the clerks at the store who always greet me warmly, the comfort of it all - Macedonia is a very friendly and welcoming place, and everyone has helped make it home. To them all, I say thank you. It's hard being away from friends and family back home, but all of you make me so glad I have come here.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Odds, Ends and Albania



Last weekend was the National Spelling Bee in Skopje. It was organized by two Peace Corps volunteers (who did a terrific job) and open to all kids from 5th to 12th grades. They had had to pass qualifying events in cities around Macedonia and the turnout was wonderful - over 300 students were at the finals. They were spelling English words - not Macedonian - and I can tell you, I wouldn't have done as well as some of those students. Pterodactyl? Who can spell that when they're on the spot in front of a large audience? They were divided into age groups and I got to erase for the 162 5th and 6th graders that were there. What fun and congratulations to all of them!
Tuesday Luli, his family and I went to Peshkopi in Albania. Elona's family is there, and she visited them while Luli and I went to a meeting about a cross border grant program. We're currently working on 2 grants, a small one through the Peace Corps and USAID to put on an agricultural festival and fun run, and this larger one which we'll do with an Albanian group. Anyway, I've been anxious to go to Albania and was delighted at the opportunity. The Diber area of Albania is gorgeous - very mountainous with smaller, cozier valleys than Macedonia. Several things struck me as we ventured into the country. First, the infrastructure is not in good shape - the roads and buildings were in rough shape. The economy there is worse than in Macedonia - they are not yet an EU candidate country. Enver Hoxha, who was dictator for about 40 years, I think, isolated the country and pretty much trashed the economy. He collectivized the farms, and ordered the farmers to terrace the mountains, so you can see all these terraces climbing their way up the mountains. In the Peshkopi area, he had everyone plant fruit trees, but when he died and everyone reclaimed their ancestral lands, they abandoned the terraces and many of the trees - they are just now starting to replant orchards. I saw many more horses being used by the farmers - not with wagons but individual horses packing things on their backs. There are also greater numbers of cows and fewer sheep - another thing that I think was a legacy of Hoxha. But one of his most infamous legacies is the bunkers he had built. He was so paranoid that someone was going to attack Albania that he had thousands of bunkers built for soldiers to stand in and fire at the enemy. I would see what looked like a strange round haystack in a field and then realize it was one of his bunkers. In fact, once I realized what they were, everywhere I looked was a bunker. But we had a great time, the people were lovely, and Elona's family was very gracious!
The other picture is me lounging on my 'deck' - really the roof of the empty store that is under my apartment. It's great - I have a table and chairs, tomato, cucumber and pepper plants, and, of course, my clothes line out there. Ah, the luxurious life in Macedonia!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010



Ah, Strawberries are ripe, and right now in the bazaar they are selling for about $1 for 2.5 pounds. Needless to say I have been eating strawberries - small, sweet, yummy strawberries. I've made shortcake for them, eaten them plain, eaten them with slightly sweetened yogurt (which is a drink here) and with a yummy bread pudding I made today. I'm surprised I haven't turned red and seedy. Interesting fact I learned last week in my agricultural seminars about strawberries: they are a false fruit. The real fruit of the strawberry plant are the seeds on the strawberry!

Last week and half of the week before I went to seminars on sustainable agriculture. They were put on by the EU for potential ag professors who will take part in developing the sustainable agricultural textbooks, teach, and take part in an exchange program in other EU countries. It was all taught in English (except for one Bulgarian who lectured in Bulgarian) which was lucky for me! Listening to them I realized all the things I did incorrectly on the farm - oh, well... But the nicest thing about the seminars were the fabulous people I met. We met aquaculture students from Tirana in Albania, a variety of people from Elbasan in Albania, and a number of students and professionals from Kosovo. Many spoke English, but some of the Albanians didn't, so I got some Albanian practice. But all were welcoming, sweet, and interesting people. The picture above is of me and my counterpart, Luli, in front of a giant aphid.

The second best part was having my hand kissed by the very dashing, adventurous professor from Portugal who taught about aquaculture. He was very charming, and I think it's the first time I ever had my hand kissed!

Luli and I are planning a 10K run to coincide with a sheep festival in Gostivar in the fall, so I signed up with some of my friends to do the 5K part of the Skopje marathon. Yep, that's actually a picture of me running! I would like to say I ran the 5 K, but actually I walked the 5 K and ran about the last 300 meters - well, walked and ran it. But it was fun and I felt very accomplished! I also visited with some people I had met on-line who were part of the ecological society, because I've been trying to find some sort of bird field guide for the Balkans. There's a stork nesting just outside of Gostivar, and it's the first stork I've ever seen. I want to start identifying birds here, and may take part in a bird count next year.

And if anyone asks you about managing manure in a sustainable way, just have them call me!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Business in Macedonia


This last week I've been attending a conference for agricultural professors in Macedonia - what fun. The all day long seminars in Intensive Swine Production and Chicken Nutrition have been led by an Englishman and a Bulgarian, both teaching in English. The seminars were somewhat technical and the poor Albanian translator knew few words for pork production, since they don't eat pork. How would she ever know weaner pig, boar, gilt, etc.? But the seminars weren't so much about learning the material as getting the power-points and networking. Consequently the lecturers would talk for 40 minutes, then we'd take half hour breaks - my way of conferencing! Luli is a premier networker, so before long we were talking to students in aquaculture and municipal and government officials from Albania, a farmer and agricultural workers from Kosovo, and Macedonians from agricultural colleges across Macedonia. Several spoke to me in English, but when together they talked Albanian, which I followed somewhat and even got to practice a little. They all invited us to visit them, and we will probably visit some of the people in Albania, but sadly I am forbidden to go to Kosovo. It's especially sad because Kosovoans love Americans, especially Bill Clinton, who championed the creation of the country. One of the attendees actually lives on Bill Clinton Street. But I digress from my topic.

Since the conference continues next week but the visitors had nothing to do over the weekend, Luli wanted to set up visits for them to a fish farm, the cheese factory, a cow farm and a sheep farm. The conference was at South East European University in Tetovo, so we needed to find a bus to transport our friends. We were checking all around, but no luck, so Luli decided to stop at a friend's business, a garage, on the way home.

Another quick digression to explain the context of business here. As I've said before, people in Macedonia tend to stay close to home and family, though that is changing a bit with the younger generation. Country nationals also count their families back through 6 generations, so they have a ton of cousins, sometimes a few times removed, but still family. In addition, everyone pretty much knows everyone else who has lived in the area for a while. PC tells us that it's good to connect with a family, because then you not only have them looking out for you, but all the collateral relatives and friends as well. When they do business, they always do it with friends and family. It's therefore very bad form not to first talk about how everyone is in the family, find out who is doing what, etc. This is almost always done over a cup of coffee. If you don't drink coffee before coming to Macedonia, it's time to start. Their coffee is Turkish coffee, very strong and very sweet, but they also have cappuccinos and machiatos. You constantly see young men, sometimes even on bicycles, carrying trays with cups of coffee to some shop where people are visiting.

So anyway, before we could find out about the mini-bus, we had to have coffee. The owner of the garage pulled out 3 chairs and put them in front of the garage bays, shouted over to the coffee shop a couple of doors down, and we relaxed, chatted and drank coffee. While I was there a delivery truck from my favorite cheese store pulled up. The driver of the truck walked over to the tire rack and pulled out a tire. No, no, said the owner, wrong one, and pointed to the correct one. The driver took it out, and started to assemble the hydraulic lug nut remover. No, no, said the owner, jack it up first. So he jacked it up, changed the tire, and filled it with air. He went over to someone in the garage, told them to put it on his bill, and drove off. Boy does that reduce labor costs when your customers do the work! But they were all friends, and everyone knew what was going on, so it was no big deal! It's little things like that that I love about Macedonia!

Of course, with everything wonderful comes its disadvantages. One disadvantage is that the clannishness of Macedonia also keeps people separated, hence some of the troubles between ethnic groups and outsiders coming into Macedonia. Most business is done informally, and it would be difficult to operate if you don't have those connections. But I'm very lucky with my counterpart, who takes me along and introduces me to everyone in the community, and being an American here definitely confers special status.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sheepbreeders, part 2


In the summer, the sheep are moved to higher pastures in the mountains. The land is owned by the government and each farmer rents and is assigned to a pasture according to the size of his flock. I always thought that the pastures were close by, but today I found out that some are very far indeed. Some farmers in Tetovo, which is in the NW corner of Macedonia, take theirs to pastures in Shtip, in the eastern central region, farmers from Gostivar to Veles, in the center, and farmers from Debar, which is on the border with Albania, to Bitola, south on the border with Greece. These locations are hundreds of miles apart, and traditionally, farmers drove the sheep over the mountains to these distant pastures. The trip from Tetovo to Shtip took 21 days, with the farmers carrying their tents and food on horses and their dogs helping to drive the sheep. The drives started in middle to late May, depending on when the snow cleared from the higher mountains, and were on traditional paths across the country. Just recently, farmers from Tetovo and Gostivar started using the train to transport the sheep, but the farmers from Debar, having no access to trains, still drive their sheep in the time-honored fashion. Luli's eyes light up when he talks about it - he'd love to go on a drive with a filmmaker and do a documentary about this old way of life which soon will die, but the timing is bad for him and he's never been able to go.

All along the trail, and during their time in the high pastures, the ewes need to be milked twice a day. There are milking sheds in the pastures, but no refrigeration, no milk pick-up, nothing. So what do they do? They make cheese, and at the end of their stay arrange for transport to pick up all of the summer cheese. The cheese is very salty and high in acid, which is what preserves it. Disease control is not the best here and some animals may have brucellosis and/or TB, and there is no pasteurization. Non-pasteurized milk makes the best tasting cheese, but those diseases can be spread through raw milk. However, after three months of being cured, the cheese is safe to eat - no bacteria can survive. Would it pass FDA standards in the States? That is a vigorous debate that's going on now - FDA requires pasteurization, but many boutique cheesemakers are fighting that so they can make higher quality, better tasting cheeses.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Working with the Sheepbreeders part 1




Hopefully this will work - I just see a bunch of computer stuff where pictures should be! Anyway, just finished my favorite breakfast, scrambled eggs made with yogurt, cirenje - a salty, soft white cheese - and hot peppers - yum. I've written about the adventures I've had, but not work, so I'll tell you a little about work.
I work with the Sheepbreeders Association of Western Macedonia - Shoqata e Kultivuesve te dhenves ne Maqedonist Perandimore - but it's a bit of a misnomer. Besides promoting the products of the local sheepherders, my counterpart (and the only person actually running the association) also does work in rural development. As I've mentioned before, Macedonia is a candidate country to join the EU, and to do that it has to change its entire agricultural sector.
Macedonians have farmed the same way for centuries - small family farms. The land has been in families for generations and there is a strong tie, but that way of life is dying. For me, it's great, food is plentiful, fresh, and cheap, but it's getting increasingly impossible for farmers to make a living and the farms don't meet EU standards for hygiene or environmental protection, and the processing infrastructure is weak. The average age of farmers is rising as young people are leaving the farms for the larger cities and towns. Whole villages are dying. I was in Lipcove the other day, a municipality up north on the border with Kosovo (and incidentally one that saw a lot of the fighting during the hostilities here 10 years ago) and got a copy of the strategic plan. Several of small mountain villages had population decreases anywhere from 90 to 100 per cent - from a village of 750 to 6, for example. So things have to change, but as with every change, much will be lost with the changes. Part of the task is to figure out how to balance this change preserving a way of life that many love and that provides all of us who are localvores with fresh, healthy food.

One sector that has had some success is organic farming, but that so far is small and still faces some of the challenges that traditional farming faces. Another sector that everyone wants to do is mountain/rural tourism, but there is much infrastructure work that needs to be done. Given that Macedonia is 70-80% mountains, there is lots of opportunity for mountain activities that can be combined with visiting rural villages and towns and to give people a taste of traditional life and handicrafts. A third area is the wine road. Macedonia is a big wine producer. Up until very recently, it mostly produced bulk wines that it sold to Germany to mix in with their wines, but Macedonia is now developing its own brands with regional grapes. The Pupova Kula winery I visited by Negotino is an example - that trip really was research! My idea is to package a wine and cheese tour. Tours would come into Skopje, travel around and visit some of the mountain villages around Gostivar, Mavrovo/Rostushe area for the cheese, farm traditions and mountain beauty, spend a day or two in Ohrid (another research trip I've had to take) then swing over to Negotino and up to visit the wineries. For anyone who visits I'll try to set that up for you! Anyway, so far I've met with people from the tourism board and Luli and I have written a grant for a traditional agricultural museum as part of that. We'd love to get a living museum a la Hovander park going.

So a lot of what I've done so far is meet with committees from some of the Municipalities while they're working of their strategic plans with Luli, educate myself about some of the issues and challenges, and meet people. You can see how spif I look in traditional dress above. You can also see how much farming is done. While some farmers have tractors, much is still done by hand or with horses. On the street by my apartment there are always farmers with their horses and wagons waiting to be hired for the day to help move things. You see the farmers coming down the street competing for space with cars, buses and trucks, standing upright on their wagons as they guide their horses. The attachment to the land will also be a challenge - how could you sell land that's been in the family for centuries so that there can be bigger farms that can afford the modern equipment and methods?

Luli and I will be working on several things this spring and summer. One will be to reconfigure the mission and board of the Sheepbreeders Association to make it broader in scope, but the fun things will be arranging festivals for tourists to publicize sheep products. Luli is one of the main organizers of the wine and cheese festival that happens in Ohrid sometime in early August, and in Sept. we're going to do a 10K race that starts in one of the villages and ends in Gostivar where we'll be having a sheep festival - booths with sheep cheeses and dried meat, village handcrafts, especially made with wool, shearing and milking contests, etc. The race will coincide with the farmers bringing the sheep down from the high pastures. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

I hope that at least gives you an idea of the challenges Macedonia faces in the agricultural sector and my very small part in it. Mostly I've been learning, learning, learning. It's a real privilege to be doing this, and I often have to pinch myself to remind myself that it's real. I feel like I'm getting to experience Macedonia as it's been for centuries, and very soon that way of life will be irrevocably changed. How lucky can I be?

Thursday, April 1, 2010





Kushadasi

After our magical 24 hours in Cappadocia, we boarded the plane for Izmeer and Kushadasi. We were taken to the wrong part of the airport when we landed in Izmeer, and by the time we made it back to the domestic side and our bags, we'd almost missed our driver. But thank heavens that the travel agent who coordinated our Kushadasi stay told him to wait - it was a 75 km drive from the airport to our hotel. The countryside was beautiful and lush and as different from Cappadocia as could be. Kushadasi is a resort town on the coast of the Aegean Sea, and to get there we drove through a valley, a coastal range, and along the sea. It was gray, cloudy and cool - where was our vacation weather? The driver pulled up to a huge resort hotel overlooking a small private cove - gorgeous, but it was definitely off season. Two busloads of Germans were staying there that night along with us. In season it must be something - something we wouldn't be able to afford as well - with 6 different swimming pools, a private beach, boats to rent, a hammam, volleyball, tennis, whatever your heart desired. Only the indoor swimming pool was open for us. But that was fine - the room was spacious and comfortable, breakfast and dinner were provided, and we didn't want to spend our time in the hotel anyway. The travel agent was there to welcome us - she was very sweet and suggested that while there were really no tours happening we might want to take the ferry over to Samos one day and the public bus up to Selchuk, the taxi to Ephesus, and the the bus again up to the small mountain village of Sirince where there were 3 wineries. We got up early the next day tried to find our way to the ferry. Unfortunately, it didn't start running until April 1, so we went to plan B. We found the bus station and caught the combi - a large van that holds maybe 16 people - to Selchuk. It stopped at Ephesus, ruins of a very important city in Greek and Roman times. It was here that St. Peter brought Mary after Jesus entrusted her care to him, and it was here she lived out her life. St. Paul wrote his famous letters here - it was the Asian capital of the Empire. We met a taxi driver who took us to the top of the mountain where it is believed that Mary lived, and we left messages for her intercession for all of you. The driver then took us back to Ephesus to meander through the uncovered ruins. One of the 7 wonders of the world is here - the library of Celsius, pictured above. It was amazing and I could have wandered through the city forever, imagining what it was like to live there centuries ago. It was a modern city - the Romans had central heating and plumbing. But we had other adventures ahead.

The driver met us at the end and took us up to Selchuk where we had the most amazing meal - it's pictured above. The food in Turkey is fabulous. We then found the bus station by walking around the city and asking "Autobus, Sirence?" The last person we asked took us to a man and told him to walk us to the bus - which he did. The people were so wonderful and helpful, and seemed delighted to have a couple of crazy tourists taking the local transportation. Macedonia has prepared us well. We went up a narrow mountain road to Sirence. The views were breathtaking and the mountain sides were covered with olive trees. Sirence has definitely figured out mountain tourism. The entire town has been transformed into a bazaar, and with the wineries there you walk along the street and everyone is offering you free tastes of wine. A lot of the wines are fruit wines, sweet and not to my taste, but it was a ball. I bought some gloves and socks from the old woman above. It was great fun walking through the town talking to the locals up to the old Church being restored by the American Friends of Ephesus at the top of the town. We caught the last combi back to Selchuk, and then the next one to Kushadasi, which dropped us off right at our hotel. It was a wonderful day!

Our last day in Turkey was gorgeous - warm, blue sky, beautiful. The sea was a deep, sparkling blue with lots of little fishing boats out. Kushadasi is a cruise boat stop, so there is an area that has been built just for cruise tourism. We stopped there and had coffee outside on the dock at a Starbucks and explored Kushadasi. We had lunch by the sea at a fish restaurant, walked to Pigeon Island, took a combi out to Ladies Beach, and walked around town. It was a low key day, and a nice end to our fabulous trip, and trip that had just the right balance of adventure, excitement, relaxation, and beauty. I have a whole new appreciation of the country, the people, and traveling!