An afternoon in Ohrid

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

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!