An afternoon in Ohrid

Thursday, December 1, 2011

I'm still here!!!!

Welcoming the Mak 16's at the new airport!
Hi, everyone,  After a long and busy absence, I'm back!  I was chosen as a trainer for cross-cultural lessons for the new group of volunteers, affectionately known as the Mak-16's.  That involved a week of training before they came, developing lesson plans, visiting them at their training sites where they lived with homestay families, and going and delivering sessions for them at Hub days, times when they all gathered at one location for general trainings.  It was great fun, but made for a hectic time because at the same time I was planning and executing the second Harvest Festival and, the biggest news (at least for me), traveling around Macedonia and Albania when Chris came for a visit!!!!  The new volunteers were sworn in on Thanksgiving, and now have been at site for a week.  They have 2 years of exciting adventures ahead!

Kerry and a group of Roma boys who ran
As I said, Luli and I planned and sponsored our second Harvest Festival.  Planning here has its challenges.  We work with people appointed by the central government as well as officials from the Municipality, two groups that don't always cooperate.  They were great and so helpful.  We also coordinate the race with the local sports education teachers, and since the race is on the first weekend of October, often they're just getting together for the first time not long before.  This year we ended up changing the date at the last minute and rearranging a few things, but it all came off well.  It's become a popular event and we had over two hundred people sign up.  Despite a slight drizzle, over 150 finished the race.  We moved the festival inside, and after the race went up to a local college and had a ball.  We had two wonderful cultural groups perform, and, even though I lack any sense of rhythm, they pulled me into to leading a round of the oro!  We also celebrated the Peace Corps 50th anniversary with a photo exhibit.

My friend Jamin helped us move things in his farm truck
Chris and Elona at Kruja by Skenderbeg's fortress
Chris came on Oct. 30th after a business trip to Italy, and the first thing he got to do was help me move into a new apartment.  I love my new apartment - I have drawers and a counter in the kitchen - woo woo!  Plus it's much more centrally located so it's easy for me to run over to Luli's new cafe (another big fall event) or to any gathering I need to attend.  After moving, Chris and I went to Albania with Luli's wife, my good friend, Elona.  It was wonderful.  We stayed at my friend Michael's in Tirana, a truly nice city.  We ate the best fish I've ever had which we picked out of a bucket that they passed around.  The next day we went to Skenderbeg's fortress in a town half way up a mountain called Kruja.  The weather was spectacular and the views were stunning.  Typical of Albanians, a taxi driver gave us a ride back to Tirana for the price of a bus fare after we missed the bus.  Albanians love Americans and are so generous.  If any of you get a chance to visit Albania, do it.  Finally, on our last day, we went to Durres, which is on the Adriatic Sea.  Elona has an aunt, uncle and cousins there, and I can't even begin to tell you how hospitable they were.  Needless to say we were stuffed with wonderful food and sampled the local rakija and wine until we could hardly move.  I think we all snoozed on the 5 hour bus ride back to Gostivar.

Chris looking at Sv. Jovan in Ohrid
Finally we took a road trip around Macedonia.  We sampled wine with Peace Corps friends and stayed at a winery, did a quick tour of Ohrid, again were hosted magnificently by my friend Tefik in Mavrovo national park and enjoyed each other's company and the company of friends.  Considering it was the first week of November, the weather was spectacular and warm the entire time, and Chris was amazed by how beautiful Macedonia is. He'd seen my pictures, but pictures never can capture its true magnificence.  I was so glad he could come and share a part of my life here.

Local football fans
I want to show you another picture because I love it!  As part of my job, we took pictures and supported a grant for a road to be paved to a new soccer field that the residents built in a village called Rechan.  Luli, his family and I went to one of the first games - so much fun.  It was a level three game between two local villages, so it was very personal.  Rechan won, and afterward the band, the team, and others danced the oro on the field.  I asked these guys what they used for face paint - lipstick and mascara.  You use what you got.  The flag, btw, is an Albanian flag - Rechani is an ethnic Albanian village in Macedonia.

The stockings were hung on the antlers with care
Now it's the holiday season, and needless to say, I have so much to be grateful for.  I've had such a good time here I've decided to extend for another year.  In a couple of weeks I'm flying home to visit my parents, kids, younger sister, and friend and the kids, their partners, and I, along with Matt, will spend the week between Christmas and New Year's up at Tahoe.  Then later in January, I'm off to Egypt on another dream trip - keep your fingers crossed that things will stay calm.  What a crazy life I'm leading at 65!  I couldn't resist decorating the new apartment for Christmas, so I'll leave you with my Christmas card picture and best wishes for a happy and loving holiday season!

Friday, August 19, 2011


Stork Nest at the beginning of summer
Endings always fill me with a sense of melancholy - a premature grief for what is passing.  This week marked two.

I mark each summer here by the storks.  I eagerly wait for their return in late spring and watch for them rebuilding their nests.  It is always amazing to me that they can perch their huge nests on top of telephone poles and chimneys, but they do.  There are 6 or 7 nests between Gostivar and Skopje that I have documented, and all summer I have watched their development:  return, eggs, hatching and growth.  As the babies get bigger, they perch on the side of the nest waiting for their parents and food.  Curiosity and bravery doesn't always pay off - if the babies fall from their high perches, they are doomed by their vulnerability and inability to fly.  But most make it and this year several of last year's babies returned to build new nests.

They're gone!
I walked to the edge of town yesterday to take pictures of the babies before they left to winter in North Africa, but I was too late.  Their exit marks the end of summer.  We'll still have some hot weather, and school doesn't start for another week, but change is in the air.  My second summer in Macedonia is drawing to a close.

Last week was also the Close of Service conference for my group, the Mak 14's.  We met for 3 days in Struga to talk about the technical side of ending service, and to select when individuals would actually leave for home.  Since I am extending for another year, it wasn't quite relevant for me yet, but it brought into focus that very soon most of the group I came with - my American family in Macedonia - will be gone.  Peace Corps spaces out times when people go, and the first three, two of whom were in my training group and one of whom is my site mate Jane, will be leaving the end of October.  I have many friends in the next group, and expect to make more in the new group that's arriving in just a few weeks, but there is a special bond with your own group that can't be replicated.  I shall miss them and the easy camaraderie.

The question we are all asking ourselves:  what should I do when I grow up?  I'm still wrestling with that - all suggestions welcomed!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Balkan Hospitality

I can't write enough about how wonderfully hospitable people are here.  Last weekend Lillian and I took a trip to Tirana, Albania, to see our friend Michael who is living there now.  We caught a bus early and arrived in Tirana around 3, much earlier than we thought.  We couldn't get Lillian's phone to work, and weren't sure how to get hold of Michael to tell him we'd arrived.  A family on the bus tried to help us call him, but when they, too, proved unsuccessful they invited us to come to their house so we weren't wandering the streets of Tirana.  When we said we'd be fine, they gave us their phone number just in case.
Michael at the bar at Xheckos.
That's the Adriatic see behind us
We went into a cafe that had wireless, and the waiters there helped us get signed on (have i mentioned i love my i-pad?) Ultimately we were able to contact Michael and find his apartment by the US embassy.  He took us to a spectacular new hotel in Tirana.  Tirana is a happening place - they are constructing all kinds of new factories and hotels and the night life is hopping! I remember thinking of Albania as a dark, mysterious and dangerous place when I was young, and now I love it.  It is a gorgeous country with wonderful people that is growing in leaps and bounds.  It has a long and spectacular coastline, and I hope to see more of it before I come home.
We went out for coffee the first night with one of the factory owners that Michael works with.  When he heard we wanted to go to the beach at Durres, he wouldn't hear of us going by bus.  He had to take us.  And not just any beach.  The Durres beach is too crowded, he said, so he took us instead to a private resort beach, along with his two kids and his wife.  This beach was spectacular, and we lounged on beach chairs and played in the water from about noon until 7 at night.  He and his wife took us to lunch at the beach and got us all kinds of wonderful things.
After our full day at the beach we stopped at an enormous new mall outside of Tirana and had dinner at the food court - we could have been anywhere in the States except for the Albanian Fried Chicken (AFC) and Kolonad, which looked suspiciously like a McDonald's.
The big pool with the restaurant on the hill in the back
The next day Harry and the kids took us to another water park - this one a country club like place.  It had a couple of huge pools, horses, tennis, table tennis, pool, and a great restaurant.  We laid by the pool, swam, read our books, went down the slide, and ate.  It was a luxurious and relaxing weekend - definitely not the weekend I was picturing we were going to have.  I don't know what Harry and his family had planned for the weekend, but they shifted everything at the last minute so they could give us the best time ever.  It was amazing, and I will forever remember their generosity.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Summer in Macedonia

Ahhh, summer in Macedonia.  The weather is hot and steamy, and things move slowly.  Everyone comes alive at night after the sun goes down and it cools off.  The diaspora are home visiting, so the city is alive.  Ramazan starts in two weeks, so now is the time to eat and make merry!

Blake, Linda, Sam me and Happie in front of the State Dept. logo.
And I have been making merry.  I went to two events for the 4th of July, the annual embassy party on July 2nd and then our own private 4th of July outside of Gostivar.   While for the most part we are not supposed to commingle with embassy staff, the 4th of July is the exception.  They do it up for the Americans (along with many Macedonians that they work with), and we enjoyed traditional American burgers and hot dogs along with beer, wine, soft drinks, salads and desserts.  And look at that great group of volunteers! 

White mulberries
For the 4th, Kerry and I went out to our friend Vjosa's family house along with her cousin Marta.  The house is in the village of Belovishte right outside of Gostivar, and it is in such a gorgeous spot in the country.  Her dad has created one of the most beautiful vegetable gardens I have ever seen - I was jealous and missed my own gardening days, though my gardens were sad affairs in comparison.  When we arrived we feasted on white mulberries from a huge mulberry tree - have you ever heard of them?  I hadn't, and they were so sweet and refreshing.  We barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs, ate potato and macaroni salad, and had peach pie for dessert - yum.  We celebrated in style with glow sticks and sparklers.
Mickey signing the big red book confirming their marriage

The bride and her mom dancing the oro
A few days later I had the privilege of going to my friend Gordana's wedding.  She had a traditional Macedonian wedding and we were able to see all parts of it.  Macedonians actually have two weddings, one civil ceremony, usually at the municipality, and then a church wedding.  Gordana's civil ceremony was on Thursday.  She arrived at the Municipality with family and they all danced the oro to the steps of the municipality.  The civil ceremony was short, and everyone returned to her house for a big feast.  Her church wedding was on Sunday.  It's interesting to think about how weddings reflect culture.  While we 'give' away the bride and the couple go off to their new life alone, Macedonian weddings reflect their communal culture.  On Sunday the bride was sequestered in her room, and her groom's friends came and kept slipping money under the door to get her to come out.  Everyone, in the meantime, is crowded around waiting for her appearance and, of course, enjoying lots of food and drink.  When the bride is finally 'convinced' to come out, she bows at the door of her parent's house 3 times to demonstrate her respect for her family.  Then everyone dances the oro in front of the house for awhile, before the groom arrives and they head off to the church. 

The church ceremony was beautiful.  The bride and groom don't say anything during the service - it's all chanting by the priest and a cantor.  There are many parts to it - the blessing and exchanging of the rings, switching crowns, communion, and circling the table holding the holy book and bowing to it from all directions.  I'll attach a short clip so you can get an idea of it.  Afterwards we went to a big restaurant, had a wonderful meal, and danced the oro all night! A couple of days later the bride and groom went on their honeymoon to the Albanian 'Riveria', accompanied by a group of their friends.
The spartan shepherd's cottage

Judging cheese

The view from Galichnik
On to Sheep Day up in the high pasture on Mount Bistra!  Luli was in charge this year, so we were much more involved than last year, and I got to know some of the major players.  Ten PCV's came, and it was wonderful to share the fun with them.  Luli put me in charge of monitoring and helping out the cheese-judging, and I was delighted because I had missed that last year and really wanted to see it.  It was held in the shepherd's cottage, and I had always been curious to see how the shepherds lived while they spent their summers in the mountains.  They were as sweet and accommodating as could be.  There were milking and shearing contests, Turkish wrestling, local Macedonian and Albanian entertainment groups and a horse race.  The day was perfect, and it was nice to be up in the cooler mountain air.  At the end we partied in the organizers tent and shared rakija, lamb and other goodies with everyone.  Day of the Raisers of Sheep ad Goats kicks off the the weekend of the Galichnik wedding, a famous festival in Macedonia, and after we were done I went up to Galichnik with some friends and looked around.  The festivities didn't start until that night, but people had started arriving and it was fun to see the village and feel all that energy.  It's high, high up in the mountains.  People no longer live there year round, but many still have summer places there and once a year a huge group of tourists come up to watch the wedding celebration.  I had a great day filled with activities, old friends and new friends.  Who could ask for more?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The beauty of Macedonia

That's my little white head out in the water
The cross on top of Vodno      

A hazy Skopje from the top

The funicular heading back down
Even though I've been here for 21 months, I still haven't begun to experience all the beauty of Macedonia.  Last week I went to Kavadarci to visit some friends and debrief the national spelling bee.  We spent a day by a lake outside the town and it was gorgeous (Thanks for the pictures, Marlys).  It's been hot, and it was good to cool off in the water.  Plus, the wonderful man who owned the house we visited owns a fish farm and couldn't have been more gracious.  He went around the neighborhood and picked us fresh peaches, apricots, and small pears and cooked us up a big plate of fresh carp.  Unlike the states, carp here is considered the national fish and is loved, and it was quite good. 

The weekend before I rode the new funicular (isn't that quite the word!) up to the top of Mt. Vodno and got to enjoy the view.  Lillian and I had a lovely picnic, walked around enjoying the sights, and took the elevator up the cross for an even better view.  When you all come to Macedonia it's a must see!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Friends, part II

I had to leave my last post because a friend had called to ask me out to coffee.  Ilmi works for an international organization in Macedonia and lives in Gostivar.  I met him through another Peace Corps volunteer.  He is delightful, and periodically we meet for coffee to talk about Macedonia and the world.  Today he had his youngest son with him while his wife was at a wedding celebration, and we had ice cream, drank coffee and talked.  He is typical of the people I've met here and cannot do enough to help out a volunteer.  One day this summer he will take me along with his family to a beautiful spot near Kichevo for a picnic, and I am very much looking forward to it.  I so enjoy our conversations, and he has taught me a lot about Macedonia and its sometimes uneven march towards democracy.  He always ends our visits saying if there is anything he can help me with, he will, and I know that is not an empty promise.

Papa with my friend Jane
Those who know me know it is difficult for me not to have a pet.  I have recently developed two more 'friends' here.  Papagal is the Macedonian and Albanian word for parakeet.  I found a pet store earlier this summer and bought Papa.  He has been a mixed blessing.  He has systematically destroyed some of my plants, and his favorite entertainment is to land on my computer while I am working, jump down on my hands, and bite me.  I need to find him a cuttle bone so he can work his beak on something besides my hands!  But he is entertaining.  My second friend has been Spike.  Gostivar has many dogs, most of which do not have homes but wander the streets keeping the town free from rodents and cleaning up garbage.  Their life spans tend to be short.  Spike showed up starving and mangy outside my apartment building a week or so ago.  I am feeding him and today gave him a bath and mange treatment.  He is pretty ugly but very sweet.  He knows the rules - he is not to come into the apartment building, but comes when I whistle for him and sits at the end of the street whining when I go somewhere.  After I feed and play with him he sits outside the door watching me go upstairs with a forlorn look on his face.  Feeding Spike has had an unintended consequence.  All the neighborhood children come and talk to me when I'm outside with Spike.  One of the boys upstairs named him, and two young girls helped me give him his bath this morning.  It's brought me closer to the kids here and they watch what I do with him.  One young boy today said we needed to call Cesar Milan to help us train him - yes - Dog Whisperer is on TV here!  Spike's future is uncertain, but at least for now he is doing well and getting some attention.

I often think of the first few weeks and months here - not infrequently I felt alone and every new thing I did was a challenge.  That's not totally gone away, but for the most part Gostivar and Macedonia have the familiar feel of home.  My friends have had a lot to do with that.  Luli and his family have made me part of their family, and my friends have sustained my spirit.  I thank them all.


Arriving at Sv. Jovan Bigorski
One of the wonderful things about the Peace Corps is the new friends you make.  I was used to be the single woman among a lovely group of married folks wherever I was in the US.  In the Peace Corps, most of us are single.  We also have similar likes - most are liberal, adventurous and love to travel.  Living in a country where, at least at the beginning, everything is new and strange forges strong bonds. Besides my Peace Corps friends, I've also have the good fortune to develop a number of friendships with Macedonians and Albanians.  Without this opportunity, I certainly would have maintained a lot of good friendships back home, but I would never have had the chance to develop so many new and good friends.

Last weekend a group of us went to the small mountain village of Jance to stay stay in the hotel owned by my friend Tefik Tefikovski and see some of the marvels of far western Macedonia.  I've written a bit about Jance before, which is located in one of the main national parks, Mavrovo.  The scenery there takes my breathe away every time, but this visit was special.  Tefik had planned to go to Belgrade to the wedding of a cousin, but instead he stayed home in order to make our visit special.  We stopped on the way in to tour the most famous monastery in Macedonia, Sv. Jovan Bigorsky, roughly translated as St. John of the lava rock!  It is gorgeous and contains the most famous woodcarvings in all of Macedonia.  Two brothers and their apprentices carved over 500 figures in a variety of Bible stories that span the front of the church.  They took whole tree trunks and carved the middle out while leaving the figures on the outside.  The Church also has some of the most famous relics in Macedonia, including a piece of the rib of John the Baptist.  It was founded in the 9th century and many people credit it with healing their illnesses.

Toasting with rakija

My friends Linda and Tefik

Some of the wonderful food
Then on to the hotel!  Tefik was waiting for us and we sat on an outside terrace overlooking the Radika valley and mountains.  His staff brought us all rakija, local grape whiskey, and we sat and celebrated out good fortune.   Tefik founded the Slow Food Convivium in Macedonia, and the food his kitchen prepared for us was extraordinary.  Much of the herbs he uses as well as the mushrooms and teas he harvests from the mountains surrounding the hotel.  We enjoyed a feast and no one held back!  After eating the main courses, we walked along a path in the village and harvested some mint, thyme, dill, chamomile, and other goodies.  We returned to the hotel for dessert, nuts, wine, relaxation and good talk.

Ducking through the entrance of the min

Kerry in her hard hat
Meredith talked with Blake in front of a Crystal wall
In the morning Tefik took us to the outskirts of Debar to see the Crystal mountain.  He had arranged for an engineer who works for the German Company Knauf to give us a tour.  Our tour guide was fabulous - even though he spoke Macedonian, he was able to make his talk simple enough to understand.  The mountain was a gypsum mine.  Gypsum is used for all kinds of things, including plaster of paris and sheet rock.  The crystal was one form of the gypsum.  We donned our hard hats and ducked out way through the entrance tunnel.  The sights once we arrived in the main chambers of the mine were amazing.  Beneath our feet everywhere were shards of crystal.  The walls glowed with crystal.  The mine itself wasn't a narrow passage way, but huge chambers with walls of crystal.  It was quite spectacular.  After the tour, the engineer gave us all pieces of crystal set in plaster of paris.  Have I mentioned before that people her are the sweetest and most generous I have ever met? 

The grounds of the monastery

The view
We traveled down the road to one of the female monasteries in Macedonia, Sv. Georgi.  It sat on the side of Lake Debar looking over the lake to the mountains on the other side.  The gardens in the monastery were the prettiest I have seen - roses and other flowers everywhere cascading down from the monastery on top of the hill.  We were again given a tour and invited in for tea.  The nuns pick wild mint, make a mint liquor and sell it in beautify tall triangular bottles.  I just couldn't pass it up.

Finally we went to a natural hot spring spa and we were invited in by some locals who were already enjoying the healing warm waters.  A couple of the group took them up on the invitation while the rest of us had lunch.  After lunch, back to Gostivar so everyone could catch a bus to their particular home.  It was a wonderful weekend with good friends, good food, gorgeous scenery, and interesting times.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The merry, merry month of May continued!

The National Spelling Bee
The Big project for the month was the national spelling bee.  We had over 600 students from 5th to 12th grades qualify for the finals which were held in Skopje.  I was on the planning committee along with 4 other wonderful volunteers.  500+ made the trip to Skopje on a beautiful day to compete, spelling in English!  It was a madhouse, crazy, tense, and wonderful.  I am so impressed with how the kids did.  The US really needs to understand that as nice as it is to have a language that many people the world over understand, we really need to add foreign languages earlier to our curriculum.
Lillian, Claudette and me with the Stone Bridge in the background

Looking out over the Radika Valley at the Sv. Jovan Bigorski Monastery
Lillian had a friend visit from LA and we had a great time hanging out.  We showed her some of Skopje before heading out to the Mavrovo National Park and the most famous monastery in Macedonia, Sv. Jovan Bigorski. It is spectacular.

Finally I subbed for a friend and helped do a 3 day workshop on project design and management.  We worked with host country nationals who had been nominated by Peace Corps volunteers.  We had the group that could speak English fluently, and they were a wonderful group.  Thanks for making it so much fun and easy for me!

This weekend I'm heading down to Gevgelija for a 50th anniversary party for Peace Corps - 50 years altogether and 15 years in Macedonia.  Gevgelija is right over the border from Greece and a big agricultural area.  It should be great fun - wish you could be there!

The merry, merry month of May

The Girls from Gostivar, Kerry, Vjosa and me

Some of the food - Happie also made a delicious Indian BBQ chicken
May has been a busy month - both with work and with play.  It started out with a traditional May Day picnic organized by my friend Happie in Makedonski Brod.  May 1 is International Worker's Day in Macedonia and a picnic is the traditional way it is celebrated.  We went up to Peshna Cave - the time I had been there previously it was almost deserted.  This time the area around the cave resembled a carnival.  There were hundreds and hundreds of people who had come to picnic, and the roads were lined with cars, people, and vendors selling food, crafts, anything that could make a little money.  Our combi driver squeezed past everything to take us up close to the cave and we found a perfect spot by the creek.  There were about 15 of us - Mak 14's (the group I came in) and Mak 15's (last year's group).  We ate, climbed up into the cave, and celebrated in style - thanks, Happie.

The next week I went to a workshop sponsored by the German foreign aid group on promoting the Polog Valley - the valley that Gostivar is in.  It was so much fun!  I was treated like an equal participant and worked in a couple of the small groups coming up with ideas on what and how to promote the region.  Fortunately, one of the presenters was German, and he had a translator to go from Macedonian to English and back, so I used him as well.  The best part was working with the men that were there sharing ideas and know-how.  They were so gracious and inclusive of me.  I got to work with 3 young men on technological ways to promote the valley, which made me smile!  I feel like I am always scrambling to keep up with the latest in technology (did you know e-mail was out?  All the young people just use facebook to send messages!), but Peace Corps has definitely pushed my boundaries and helped me learn.

My interview on Macedonian TV was aired, and I've been recognized several times by Macedonians which is always fun.  Hopefully coincidentally, the embassy also offered us a workshop on talking to the media - it was so interesting and useful, if a little late for my debut on the news!  Anyway, they made a little clip that is posted among the embassy YouTube videos - I'll see if this link works: 
Hmm, after putting up this link I can't figure out how to debold this.  Rather than subject you to the rest of this in bold, I'll publish this and start again for the rest of the month.

Monday, April 25, 2011

среќен велигден

Monastery in Kriva Palanka
Ping Pong at the Firestation

Earth Day Cake at American Corner, Tetovo
I've been busy this past week, both working and having fun.  I went to two seminars, one on alternative energy, and another on Rural Extension Networking in the Western Balkans.  Luli and I have been talking about taking some of the farmers down to Greece for a course on cheesemaking in a way that would meet European standards, but after the conference we huddled and are going to try to do it another way.  Oh, and I was also on TV after being interviewed about volunteerism.  That's always fun because the local folks always get so excited when they see me after I've been on TV.  I also helped a fellow volunteer and friend who had been trained in Cherkeze, Joany Yi, with the Earth day that she had planned with the American Corner in Tetovo.

American Corners are funded by the State Dept., but employ locals to teach Macedonians about America in a variety of ways.  They sponsor lots of the events we do with the kids - like Earth Day, the National Spelling Bee, Model UN, Speaking contest, etc.  They also have a library stocked with American books and magazines, sponsor conversation hours for people wanting to practice English, and sponsor a number of other talks and events throughout the year.  There are 5 of them in Macedonia, all quite busy and successful.  They did a great job with earth day and lots of local kids were involved.

I went and visited another friend in Kriva Palanka in the northeastern corner of Macedonia over the weekend.  This was a weekend of meeting people and visiting.  On the way to Kriva I had an hour lay-over in the bus station and met a New Zealander traveling around the Balkans.  She said that far and away Macedonians were the friendliest people she had ever met, and I had to agree!  Since it was Easter Weekend, it was a fun time to visit Kriva.  Linda showed me around town and we stopped in and visited the fire department.  She's written a grant to help them rehab the building, and it was great meeting the firemen and seeing the before version of the building.  One asked me if I wanted to play ping pong and I think was surprised when I said yes!

That night we dyed Easter eggs in preparation for the big day.  The dyes here are different than ours - stronger colors (and I think, probably less washable out of kids clothing),  Some of the eggs I saw were spectacular.  They don't have egg hunts, they have egg wars - smashing each other and the eggs with their eggs.  I also got to talk with the kids in my classroom at world-wide school.  I've been very lucky - I have a great class and it's been so much fun to be able to talk to them and get letters from them.  They told me all about their projects that they had done after I had asked them to do something for the 50th Anniversary of Peace Corps and the European Year of the Volunteer.  They did a fabulous job - really talented kids.  What would I do without Skype?

Traditional village dresses from area of Kriva Palanka
The next morning we headed up to the monastery above Kriva Palanka.  I don't know how many monasteries there are in Macedonia, but there must be close to 100.  As you travel through the country, you see them everywhere scattered high up on the hills.  Most no longer have monks living there, and several have been rehabbed to be tourist attractions and hotels.  The one at Kriva is one of the biggest and most famous.  It has very nice rooms and would be a great place to stay.  Cost - 10 Euros per night per room - interestingly, in Macedonia the charge per person, not per room.  After touring the monastery, we sat down to have some coffee at the cafe overlooking the monastery.  A little boy was running around with a shirt that said New York on it, so I asked him if he lived in NY or in Macedonia.  His father answered in English that they loved America.  We struck up a conversation - he told us all about the traditional dresses and antiques that were in the cafe, as well as the history of the monastery.  He was from the area, but currently lived in Skopje.  After talking we sat to enjoy our coffee, and in a few minutes the little boy showed up with two bags.  His dad had gone down to the gift shop and bought us icons of Sveti Joachim and some incense.  That is just one example of how sweet and nice the people of Macedonia are!

After the family left, another man came and sat down in the table next to us.  It turned out that he was a major in the Vt. National Guard and is currently based at the embassy.  Vermont is the sister state of Macedonia, and all the states with a sister country have a guard member stationed at that embassy.  We had a lovely chat about spring in New England and places to visit in Macedonia.  It was a lovely afternoon.

Afterward we went back to Linda's I napped in preparation for the big event that night.  At midnight between Easter Eve and Easter, Macedonians go to their church for a ceremony.  The pope (that's what they call Macedonian clergy) chants a liturgy, they toll the church bells, and the people, all holding lit candles, walk around the church 3 times.  You are entitled to a wish for each time around the church.  Men must light women's candles and vice versa.  I was surprised to see who was in the crowd - unlike church events in the States, the vast majority of the crowd were young people in their teens and 20's.  There are probably a couple of reasons for this:  one, in crowds, Macedonians tend not to form orderly lines and crowds just surge forward to get to where they want to go, and two, after the ceremony all the young folks go to the disco and party!  Linda and I circled the church with our candles, being careful not to trip or to catch anyone on fire (she was warned to watch out for her hair), but decided against the partying.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Springtime in Makedonija

Lillian and me

Matka Canyon

Inside the cave

Kayak racing
Woo, woo, new things in the blogosphere.  I can label may pictures and have them in different places!
Macedonia is gorgeous in the spring.  My storks are back nesting just outside of Gostivar, the weather is warm, mountains are changing from a nubbly brown to a soft variety of greens, and everywhere trees are blooming.  It is such a joyous time.

I've been taking advantage of the weather by getting out and seeing things.  Last weekend Lillian and I went to Matka canyon just outside of Skopje.  It made my heart sing - gorgeous!  We took a boat ride up the lake to a cave.  Our boat was piloted by a very nice young Albanian man, so I got to practice some of my Albanian with him  As you can see by the pictures, the cave was spectacular as well.  We sat lakeside at the restaurant in the canyon and had a lovely meal - though not the fish we were hoping for - and headed back down to watch the slalom kayak event that was being held.  A most satisfying day.

Thursday and Friday I was down in Ohrid to do a presentation for the Mak-15's.  It was fun to hang out a bit with them, and to my surprise my friend Ilmi from Gostivar was also at the hotel for a UN Development Program presentation.  We got together with some of the other volunteers in the evening for a relaxed drink and conversation.  Friday morning I walked up to a cave church with Kerry.  A woman was sitting by the cave and spoke to us in Macedonian, then, hearing my poor attempt at a response, asked if we spoke English.  She was a police inspector from Gostivar who was vacationing in Ohrid, and before we left she had invited us to coffee at her house after she returned.  She was very sweet, and pointed out the magic eye for making wishes in the roof of the church entrance.  Macedonians and Albanians are the most hospitable people I know.

After taking leave of Kerry and Mimi, I continued up the hill.  The weather was pristine with no wind, and the view over the lake and over to the mountains in Albania was breathtaking.  I've mentioned before that the River Drim starts at one end of Ohrid and continues, unchanged despite its path through the lake, on the other end.  As I gazed down on the lake, I swear I could see its path as it wound its way through the lake.  A butterfly came and landed on my collar, and brushed my cheek with its wing as it took flight.  I hiked to a place that overlooked a village and could see villagers working on their gardens and the ground coming to life in the warmth of spring.  Days like this sustain me though the harder days that inevitably are there as well.

I hope all is well with you.  It is very odd writing a blog - you never know who is reading it.  Sometimes I wonder if anyone is, and then someone will pop up and tell me they've been following it right along.  So, dear friends who might be reading, thank you.  You all mean a lot to me.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Some days in the life

It's been a crazy month - well, a crazy year for me so far. The Sheepbreeder's Ass'n is pretty quiet in the winter, so I frontloaded a lot of my vacation time. Besides my Africa trip, I flew to NYC for a 4 day weekend to celebrate my daughter turning 30! Yep, hard to believe, Kacy is now 30. But more about that later - first, Macedonia.
The picture above is of my friend Nicola above the village she lives in, Istabanje. I visited for a weekend and had a great time. As you can see, Istabanje is both small and located in a beautiful spot. I am really enjoying wandering around Macedonia and seeing a variety of places. Eastern Macedonia is quite different than Western Macedonia. It's almost entirely ethnic Macedonian and Macedonian Orthodox, so there is no call to prayer to measure your day by. It looks less prosperous and while hilly, does not have the towering mountains we have in the Polog valley. But it's beautiful in its own way and nice to visit.

It's an interesting time to be in Macedonia. The political scene is heating up - there have been multiple protests and rallies, and the government has been forced to call snap elections. The political gamesmanship is on! According to the Framework agreement signed after the uprising in 2001, the majority Macedonian party must form a coalition with the majority Albanian party. Political parties here are huge - in a country where official unemployment hovers around 40%, many, many jobs are political appointments, from the principals at schools, to all government workers, to professors at colleges. When one party loses and another wins, there is a terrific turnover as old party members are swept out and new appointments come in. If you don't belong to a party, it is difficult to find a job. So everyone is marshaling their troops and trying to get undeclared people into their party by offering incentives. VMRO, the party in power, won by a huge majority last time and tried to capitalize on its current strength by calling immediate snap elections. SDSM, the main opposition, countered by having the head of the elections committee resign and by walking out of parliament, which meant that nothing could happen. The dates haven't been set yet for the elections, but they will undoubtedly happen sometime this summer. From what I hear, VMRO and DUI, the main Macedonian and Albanian parties, will probably be elected again (wouldn't you vote for your job?), but people are hoping that they will have a smaller majority so they can't ride roughshod over everyone else. We'll see.

The picture above is Kacy and Chris on the Highline Trail in NYC. It's one of my favorite places. They converted an old elevated train track into a park, and people love it. It's a great place to go for a walk. You definitely get a different view of the city from above - you notice all the old facades and decorations on buildings, and it has a great view across the Hudson River and down to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. And, this being NYC, it's also famous for a hotel that straddles the park where people like to show themselves off in the buff! Kacy's party was fabulous. Udi had found a wonderful bar that gave us the space in the back and served delicious hors d'ouerves. Lots of Kacy's friends came and it was great to visit with them. The best of all, though, was the sweet speech Udi made to toast Kacy. I was so glad I was there.

A day after I returned from NY, I headed down to Thessaloniki on a business trip to Perrotis College, a part of the American Farm School. The people there were fantastically gracious and hospitable. We stayed on campus in a very luxurious new dorm and ate at the student cafeteria. You know you're in Greece when a cafeteria serves calamari to the students! One afternoon my friend Tracy and I took the bus to downtown Thessaloniki and ate at a cafe on the waterfront. That's a real Greek salad above. I had that and moussaka - absolutely delicious. The weather was gorgeous and Mt. Olympus shone snow-covered as a backdrop. What can you say? Magical. Friday morning we went out to a farm to meet one of the graduates. He has started an agro-business producing grape leaves for dolma, as well as making dolma and other goodies. They make something with every part of the grape plant - it was wonderful to hear about successful, thoughtful, and sustainable entrepreneurship. When we left he gave us a big pan of freshly made dolma. On the way back Luli and I stopped at the Popova Kula winery, enjoyed a glass of wine, and stuffed ourselves on dolma. It is a good life!