An afternoon in Ohrid

Thursday, January 21, 2010

It's a quiet, peaceful day in Gostivar. It's snowing lightly, and the sounds from the train and bus station are softly filtering through into my apartment. I have been pleasantly surprised by the weather. I thought it would be more like New Hampshire from the description, but we've only had a couple of big snow storms and they've melted within a couple of days. Temperatures now hover around freezing and it's been cloudy a lot, but I still see the grass and it's been a good winter for the sheep. The surrounding mountains often have a gentle veil of snow covering the trees, giving them a magical aspect and adding to the surrounding beauty.
I've been contemplating how you never know what arcane skills will come in useful. When I received my acceptance letter that said I would be assigned to an NGO in Macedonia, I figured it would be one that was either associated with education or women. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would call upon my years on the farm and be assigned to the sheepbreeders association. Yet here I am. And the project we've been working on is writing a grant for an agricultural museum to preserve knowledge from the traditional ways of farming before the EU sweeps in and farming, by necessity, needs to become more of a business. And I find myself using things I learned from my time on the board for the Marlow Historical Society and grant-writing at Keene State. It's been fun to bring all these disparate things together.

The day after the carnival at Vevchani (and now that I seem to have consistently working internet again I've attached another video clip showing the devils sweeping away fears with cow tails - just hit the play button if it looks gray), a group of us went to the small village of Radozhja on the other side of the lake from Ohrid. If you look closely at the picture above you can see the small church built into a cave in the cliff. It was a healthy climb up the stairs, but well worth it. To our right were goats grazing among the rocks, and down below we could see fishermen throwing their nets into the lake from small boats. Across the water was the city of Ohrid and to the right was Struga. The Church was beautiful as ancient orthodox churches are - old icons and holy relics that people came to pray to. After we walked through the village, again meeting nothing but friendly and helpful villagers, to the Via Ignatcio, which looks like a path through the woods but was an ancient road built by the Romans through Albania to Macedonia. Think about how old the road that I walked on was - it boggles my mind! Walking along the road did remind me of my beloved walks in New Hampshire - I was surrounded by oak trees and stone walls. We went to a newer church that was built in the middle of the woods and then returned to the village for a taxi ride back to Struga and a delicious meal. All in all a happy and satisfying day.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Carnival in Vevchani

Carnival time in Vevchani: Last Wednesday I headed down to Ohrid to meet friends and go to Vevchani for its famous Old New Year's Eve parade. We got there early and walked up to the springs and hills there - it is a beautiful town with lots of hiking trails leading out of it. It was hard not to take off! But we had bigger things on our agenda! We walked around town and heard a party going on out on a plaza and decided to join. They welcomed us with glasses of rakija and wine - only later did we realize that it was the party for the dignitaries and press. But a band was walking aroung and people were dancing. A very nice old man with no teeth pulled me into the dance line and I danced the Oro with them and later danced with the monster whose picture is above- it's not easy to drink with a mask on! They had a lovely buffet with traditional food that was very delicious!
The parade is interesting. Everyone dresses up as a fear - there are lots of devils around who are sweeping the fears up with cowtails and interacting with the crowd - hitting parade goers with the tails and a pig skin, too. It is a very interactive parade - if I am successful in loading the video below you can see how everyone is in the street with the participants! The Next day, Old New Year's Day, they burn all their fears and start the year fresh! Above is a picture of my friend Maggie and me with a man dressed up as the 'pope' - a Macedonian Orthodox head priest.
Above are some people getting ready for the parade. They are wearing traditional costumes and we caught them celebrating before the parade started. Celebrations abound with homemade wine and rakija following pretty freely. For New Year's Eve men traditionally build a big bonfire and celebrate into the wee hours of the night, and sure enough, when we returned to Ohrid, some neighbors of our host volunteer were out around the bonfire. I begged off, but several friends went down and had a wonderful time with them.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Christmas Eve

Срекен божик! Времето грее сонце и свежо. In case you ever wondered what Macedonian looks like, it's a cyrillic alphabet, which means I am always confusing something that looks like an H in English but is pronounced like an 'n' in Macedonian! What I said above was Merry Christmas. The weather is sunny and warm, which it is today. Two days ago was the Orthodox Christmas. While Christmas itself is a quiet family dinner holiday, Christmas Eve rocks. At the church below (above is a picture of the clock tower and downtown xhami, or mosque) they shot off fireworks to start off the event. People go to the church to light candles for loved ones, alive and dead, and touch the icon for their saint - most people and families have saints associated with their names. Then out they go to the church yard where a tent was set up and men were handing out cupfuls of rakija, the local distilled product. Rakija is used for a lot in ethnic macedonian households - to treat sickness, for massages, to lower fevers, for breakfast pick-me-up, and for celebrating everything or nothing, for that matter. By the rakija tent a traditional band of a bass drum and another drum and two instruments that looked like simplified wooden clarinets was playing. At one point, the old Roma woman who was begging in the crowd even picked up her skirts and danced to the music. In another corner, a huge bonfire was burning with the traditional oak tree in it - oak branches are a traditional symbol of Christmas here. People took home oak branches from a couple of huge boxes of them to stick on their door - Children go to houses displaying them to get candy (though I have to say I think the kids here go around to houses for every holiday to get candy). Young adults go out to clubs after all the town festivities for Halloween like costume parties! It is definitely not a somber religious celebration.
Yesterday and today there has been a sadness that has hung over the town. The bus station has been crowded with buses and families as relatives who work somewhere in the EU take their leave and go back for work. It seems ironic that this culture that values families being close by has been forced to send husbands, children and whole families away to find work and make money. Now it will be summer before they all return, and then bus station will again be filled with tour buses and big cars that choke the roads. One side note, during the holidays many come back and get married, so there has been lots of weddings in the past few weeks!

I've lived in Gostivar a little over a month now - hard to believe! It has been a very festive month, and there is one more festival to go. Wed. I head down to Ohrid and then over to Vevchani for the famous Old New Year carnival and celebration. I will remember my camera for this one and will take lots of pictures - it's supposed to be quite the deal. By the way, the NYTimes identified Ohrid, Macedonia, as one of the top must see destinations for 2010!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Reflections on a new year

Good Morning, everyone! It's a snowy day in Gostivar today, but yesterday it was beautiful, warm and sunny (Moti eshte bukur, ngrohte dhe me diell). Jane and I took a walk up to the Turkish baths, above, and then walked up a small hill to get a view of Gostivar.
This is a small orthodox monastery church on the way - it was so cute I had to take a picture.
Jane is a fabulous photograther, and I caught a quick one of her taking a picture. You can see how pretty a day it is. This is looking towards a small village that's part of the Gostivar municipality.
Thought you'd also like to see how the city park gets mowed! Below is a movie that scans Gostivar and will give you a feel of the valley and the city. At the beginning you can hear the call to prayer. I got just the very end of it. When they started, we had quite the serenade. There are numerous mosques in the city, and during a call we are serenaded by the voices of several muezzins. I only caught the tail end of the last one. It's a comforting sound and overlays the background buzz of the city. As you can see by the end, I'm just learning how to use my camera!!! But all this has started me reflecting on technology and what moving to Macedonia has taught me.

I now use Skype all the time, and just finished an episode of Mad Men, season 3, that I streamed from Surfthechannel. I bought a printer but the software that came with it didn't work with my MacBook, so I had to download the right drivers and change the default setting in my system preferences. When I got wifi, I also had to set the right connection so it automatically came up. I'm using my printer to scan in things and send them to the Peace Corps office. I'm also using Facebook like never before and have uploaded pictures on that. All of this is a piece of cake for younger users, but for me, every day has had its technological triumphs! Seems funny that I had to come here to be confronted with these things, but it makes me feel so pleased whenever I figure anything out! Now I knew there would be challenges in figuring out new languages and a new culture, but I hadn't imagined there would be these as well. It's all part of the fun.

Udi, you asked about what I get on TV. I do get CNN International and BBC news, and I've even watched some football games on ESPN. There's a Hallmark channel, Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and a number of others that are familiar. It's especially nice to be able to keep up with the news - I've felt so out of what is happening.

I didn't get any pictures of the square when the booths were up selling Christmas lights and Santas. People do put up some lights and decorate, but it's more for New Year's, which I think is when Santa comes, than for their Christmas, so they were all taken down on New Year's Eve. Santa is something that's come in with Western Culture and is a fairly new phenomenom. I was surprised in my Islamic host family's house to see a picture of their son on Santa's lap. Having the celebration on New Year's divorces Santa from any religious affiliation.

Enough for today. I do hope the video works for you!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year

Gezuar Vitin i ri dhe Creken Novo Godina! Above is one of my favorite signs in Macedonia. It's a restaurant, and I'm sure they mean it as you don't have to stop and eat but can take it out, but from the name it looks like they are discouraging you from stopping! Many, many stores here have English names - like Top Modeli - which combines English with the Macedonian plural form. Another is the Tajwan Chopping Center - c's are pronounced like S's - but it's another sign that brings me smiles.

I had a nice New Year's eve celebration here. I met some friends and we went up to Tetova for drinks and dinner - I think it must be the biggest night for people going out to dinner in Macedonia. All over you could hear big and small booms - they sell fireworks all over and the kids start a few weeks ahead of time popping them off. But on the big night a bazillion must be exploded - it sounds almost like a war zone. We then returned to Gostivar for the countdown. The townspeople had gathered around the main square. Kids threw their firecrackers into the square, onto the street under passing cars, and into stacks of cardboard and plastic tarping - I kept waiting for a fire to start, but everything was fine. The city's budget is in trouble, so there was no formal celebration, but between small fireworks individuals set off, the firecrackers and the people things seemed quite festive. It's also a time when people give others bags of candy, cakes and cookies, and the municipality gave everyone working there and the Peace Corps volunteers a huge bag of goodies. I spent some of the time with my counterpart's family and that was lovely. My counterpart's wife is also my Albanian tutor, and they have two small kids, a three year old daughter and a 9 week old son, both as gorgeous as you can imagine. Elona calls me gjusha Kendi - grandmother Candy - to the kids, and it will be fun to watch them grow up for the next two years.
We had a slumber party after my boxing day party - these friends and one more who spent the night are from all over Macedonia. We had great fun! Luli, my counterpart, came over a few minutes before this picture was taken and was mortified not only to find me still in my bathrobe, but also 4 other women in their pj's who had to come out and meet him! We had a good laugh about it the next time I saw him!

Best wishes to you all for the most exciting and satisfying year ever! May all kinds of happiness come your way, and may you spend time with friends and loved ones - even if it's over skype! :-)