An afternoon in Ohrid

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....