An afternoon in Ohrid

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.