An afternoon in Ohrid

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Shihemi me vone; ќе се видаме наскеро

This will probably be my final posting to CandyinMacedonia.  On Dec. 4th I shall join the legions of returned Peace Corps volunteers.  Since it is difficult to really explain to others what this experience has been like, RPCV's often hang out together.  They understand the challenges, rewards, joys and frustrations that accompany being a volunteer.  They understand the language, abbreviations, and jokes.  It is an experience like no other, and I thank all of you who have gone through this with me, either here in Macedonia or by reading my blog.  If you see me shortly after I return, know that I will be going through culture shock, even though I am returning to my home country.  I know that suddenly everything will feel too big, too impersonal, too overwhelming, and it will take some time to readjust to the immensity that is the United States.

Spike's passport picture
I'm busy cleaning and packing, trying to fit into one suitcase and two carry-ons all the detritus that I have accumulated over 3+ years.  I'll be returning with Spike, my Macedonian Muskrat Terrier (just found out MK doesn't have muskrats - probably because there are so many Spikey's around).  But more important than the things will be the memories of the people, country and experiences that I have been privileged to have.  A little over 3 years ago I arrived in Macedonia with the other MAK -14's, nervous, excited and in shock.  For the first week - heck, for the first year, I kept waiting for Peace Corps to say they'd made a mistake and I had to go home.  But they didn't, and they even let me stay an additional year beyond my initial commitment!

I've been thinking of all the things I will miss about Macedonia and have made a partial list.
Luli, Elona, kids and extended family
1.  My family here.  Luli and Elona have welcomed me into their family and have been so loving.  I will miss having Lule run and jump into my arms when she sees me, and Lindi growing up so quickly and becoming a little man.  I will miss their extended family - parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins - all of whom have been so gracious and loving to me.  People may not have a lot here, but what they have they share.  They take care of each other and guests with such graciousness.  I've felt surround by a blanket of caring.

Gordana, her parents and Goran
Vjosa's Mom (Halide) and Dad (Billy)
2.  My friends.  I've had the privilege to be part of both Macedonian and Albanian friends and family.  They've fed me, pampered me, put up with my halting and underdeveloped Macedonian and Albanian, and taken me into their homes and their hearts and left an indelible impression in mine.  They've showered me with rakija, ajvar, fruits and vegetables from the garden, and, of course, delicious baklava and other treats.  If I have ever needed anything, all I've had to do is ask!

3.  The smell of chestnuts roasting.  I remember the smell of chestnuts roasting when I lived in New York City right after college, but by the time Kacy moved to New York they had disappeared.  Here, in the fall and winter, the chestnut vendors stand outside my door and on the main square selling cones of chestnuts for about 50 cents.  (In the summer they sell corn on the cob).  I will miss these street side vendors who add to the ambiance of Gostivar.

4.  Being spoiled.  Everyone, i mean everyone, spoils me rotten here.  I am 'the American'.  I am given the best of everything, whether it's the best seat by the fire or the best cut of meat at a meal.  I am greeted with enthusiasm on the street by lots of people, even though I may have trouble remembering them.  It is heady stuff, being special, and when I return I'll just be another LOL (little old lady).

A sheepbreeders meeting
5.  Conversations over coffee.  In the evening, I often wander over to Luli's coffee shop, the Etno Kaffe.  Sometimes I sit and talk with Luli, sometimes others in the shop.  I might meet Shkodran there, to talk about school in America or other things.  Or I might sit with my dear friend Ilmi and chat about everything - I have so appreciated our coffees together where we talked about everything under the sun.  When I was curious about something, I always knew I could ask him and get an unbiased response.  No coffees to go here - it would be an insult not to sit and talk - why else would you get coffee?  In fact, nothing would get done here without sitting done for coffee.  Some days I had to moderate my coffee intake with other beverages so I didn't end up over-caffeinated!

The Skopje-Kriva Palanka bus
6.  The buses.  Oh, yes, the buses.  Big and small and in-between.  Sometimes they were so packed - seats, aisles, door wells are crammed with people - that I wondered if I'd be able to get to a door when it was time to get off.  Sometimes they were so stifling hot with no one wanting to open windows or roof openings for fear of the dreaded pro maja.  For the first year I was nervous about riding them to new places, worrying that I would miss the town I was headed to.  It is difficult to find out when the bus goes to any one town, since each town has a different bus system and there is nothing centralized or even on line.  But bus drivers are wonderful.  Two friends did what we all feared most and got on wrong buses, but when they discovered they were on the wrong bus, the drivers called the right buses to make sure they would meet and transfer the person.  They helped me get to the right place at the right town.  And this last year, since I rode the bus so often to go to Skopje, the drivers got to know me and always greeted me with a smile or waved when the bus went by me in town.  And I had some wonderful conversations with people on buses - strangers that were wonderful to talk to!

7.  The call to prayer.  When I first came to Macedonia, I stayed with a family that lived right next to the Xhamija (mosque).  I cursed the call to prayer as it boomed into my bedroom at 5:15 from the loudspeaker outside my window.  But I shall miss it when I return.  The call marks time during the day and soothes the soul.  Each xhamija's call is different, but when they blend and float over the city, it is beautiful

Lunch at Hotel Tutto
8.  The food.  There are many foods I am looking forward to when I return, but I shall miss the fresh and delicious food here.  Food has not become big business here, and the small farmers take pride in their produce and meats.  Everything is fresh, tasty and juicy.  I shall miss my butcher shop, where the fresh beef is ground into hamburger as I watch and the pork chop from the pig slaughtered in the preceding 24 hours is cut from the rack.  I will miss by bakery lady, who has always been so sweet to me, and the smell and taste of the wonderful baked goods.  But mostly I will miss the fresh produce.  I had forgotten how good peaches can taste and the piquancy of a good tomato.  It will be hard to go back to the mass produced food that looks good but has no taste.

9.  The challenges.  Living in a different culture with different traditions and languages presented challenges every day.  If I wanted to buy something, hmmm, where might I be able to do that?  How could I make myself understood when I was trying to ask something?  What is the right thing to do in this situation?  Every day was a different challenge.  It kept the adrenaline flowing, and every day I learned new things.  I fear it will be boring to return where things are predictable, where it is easy to find what you want, and where everyone understands what you say but may not listen to you.

10.  The beauty.  Macedonia is a beautiful country.  There were times that it took my breath away, and times that I luxuriated in its beauty.  Every time I came back to the Polog Valley from Skopje, I was filled with a sense of wonderment the minute we crested the hill and the Mali Shar came into view.  I loved being able to see so much of it and constantly be amazed and thrilled by the view.

Harvest Festival
11.  My Peace Corps family.  The ages of volunteers while I was here ranged from 21 to 80, yet we all were in this together and formed tight bonds.  Whenever I needed help or support, I knew that my PC family would answer the call.  I have laughed, cried, played and had adventures with them  Now I have friends that I will always have a special bond with scattered throughout the country.  I can't wait to see you all again and I hope we have the chance to have more adventures together.

12.  Adventure.  Speaking of adventures, Peace Corps has given me the opportunity to have more adventures than I can even begin to recount, both in Macedonia and in places I never thought I would go.  It's taught me how to travel, not impersonally only seeing the sights, but to find out about life and make connections wherever I go.  It's not about being comfortable, it's about experiencing the place and the people, and pushing my own boundaries wherever I am.  I shall be eternally grateful that I have had the opportunity to experience all that I have in these past three plus years.  I consider myself to be the luckiest of people!

And now the sun is setting on this part of my life (is that too corny?  I just love this picture!)  I look forward to returning home and seeing my family and friends there.  I am still trying to figure out what is next for me - for now I shall continue to travel and see those folks that I have missed these last three years.  But Macedonia and Peace Corps will always be in my heart, and soon I shall return for a visit.  If you have stayed with this blog entry to the very end, bless you!  And thanks for letting me share my journey with you.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The fabulous fall!

The tent where I slept with the pasture in the background
 Welcome to the most fabulous time of year in Macedonia - Autumn!  It's been quite a while since I last wrote, but only because I have been crazy busy!  Last night I got to drive through my favorite place in Macedonia, Mavrovo canyon.  Like many places in the fall, it is especially beautiful now, with an artist's palette of colors laid over its natural beauty.  We drove past many places that will always have a special place in my heart - Rostuche, Jance, and high in the mountains, Galichnik.  And it also brought back memories of last fall when Chris visited and we had such a fabulous time!  But enough of being nostalgic.  There are still things to do and memories to make ahead before I return home!

One of the 1100 sheep at the camp
Last month I was able to live one of the dreams I have had since I was assigned to the Sheepbreeders' Association - spend the night at a sheep camp in the high mountain pastures.  Friends of Luli's, Hassan and Akise, invited us up to the pasture where they summer their sheep.  The high pastures are leased to farmers by the government, and since many of the pastures are leased on a yearly basis and farmers have no guarantee that they will return to the same one, the camps themselves remain pretty primitive. 

Me serving coffee to the shepherds and Hassan
Hassan has a 4 wheel drive Jeep, which we needed to travel over the road up to the pasture.  His son and two other shepherds stay up there full time, and Hassan and Akise travel there and back bringing up supplies, checking on what needs to be done, and cleaning, doing chores, picking up cheese, etc.  The camp itself consists of a cobbled together shack with 2 beds, a couch and a table, a couple of wood stoves, one now inside (they moved it in while we were there because the cold weather was moving in) and one outside, and another shed for storing cheese and supplies.  Water is piped down through a hose from a natural spring higher up on the mountain and connected to a faucet over a bathtub.  Cheese is refrigerated in buckets in the bathtub - the water from the spring is cold year round.  The shepherds bring the flocks (there are two - one of 400 that they manage for another man, and Hassan's flock of 700) back to the camp in the evening, and during the day they range throughout the area taking the sheep to fresh pastures.  The three men milk the sheep twice a day - it's hard for me to imagine - and eat lots of sheep and goat cheese, yogurt and lamb.  Bathroom facilities are non-existent - if you have to go, there's lots of pasture around!

It was misty when we arrived, and the mist soon turned to a cold hard rain.  Since it had been very warm in Gostivar up until the time we went up, I definitely underdressed!  Akise brought up sarma (you may be more familiar with it called by its Greek name, dolma) and bread, which we combined with cheese, cheese and peppers, olives, and yogurt for a delicious dinner.  The hut actually has power fueled by a small solar panel, and after dinner we looked at pictures of the area on Hassan's son's computer!  Hmmm, where were we going to sleep?  The shepherd's hut only had 3 beds, and there were 7 of us....But Luli must have read my mind.  Shortly after we finished looking at the pictures, Hassan and Akise left and he told me they had gone to fix up the place we were going to sleep.  We walked up the hill to the tent which held two double beds.  Fully clothed, Luli and Hassan jumped into one bed and Akise and I into the other.  I had been smart enough to restrict my fluid intake after dinner - there was no way I wanted to have to leave the tent, surrounded by sheep, goats, and huge Shar Planina sheep dogs, to pee in the middle of the night.  The bed was actually very comfortable, and I went to sleep with a big smile on my face - now this really was Peace Corps!

We had another huge and wonderful meal in the morning that included the best hard goat cheese I have ever had, then spent the morning doing chores around the camp before the men moved the sheep out for their day's grazing.  Akise never stopped working - she would complain about how with no women around the men let the camp get so dirty!  I played with some adorable puppies from Akise's favorite dog - she looked to be part border collie and part mountain dog.  As you can see, I also served coffee to the men - a traditional job for the woman!!!  But I loved every minute of it - another treasured memory.  We might go up again next weekend to slaughter a goat and salt it down using a tradition method called pastrimaja.  I'm looking forward to it!

We also had the third annual Gostivar Fun Run/Walk.  It's become quite the event in Gostivar.  We work with the School Sports people and almost all of our runners are students from the local schools.  Not much happens here, so the kids are so excited to participate in something, and each year we have more and more kids run.  This year we had 158 finish the race, the highest number ever.

The unbeatable team of Fezullai and Wiggum!
After the race, I had something happen that was my absolutely favorite thing ever.  The girl that had finished second had not come up to receive her certificate and medal when we announced her name, but she came shortly afterward to get it along with her father and her family.  I gave it to her, hung her medal around her neck, and her father kept saying:  "This is my daughter"  He was so proud!  Then he showed me his family:  "This is my family!"  I cannot describe how heartwarming it is to see the response of the kids and  their families.

PCV's at Vrutok!
Of course none of it could be done without help.  The city of Gostivar helps finance it, the police donate their time to clear the course and make sure it's safe, the public health clinic sends out an ambulance to follow the racers, the sports teachers get the kids excited about it and pick representatives from their school, and the municipal works folks clean, put up signs, and do whatever is needed.  That's the other thing I love - in a country where different parties and levels of government often don't work together, this is truly a multi-agency, multi-party effort in order to benefit the kids.  And we also couldn't do it without all the people that help.  The sports ed folks volunteer, local high school students monitor the course and give out water, and this year about 25 peace corps volunteers came to lend a hand.  Afterward we went up to Vrutok for a lovely fish dinner - how I will miss my Peace Corps family!

The bride and groom
Finally, the reason I traveled through Mavrovo Canyon last night was to go to the wedding of Elona's brother, Fatjon.  It was the first Albanian wedding party I have been to, and I had a ball.  Like Macedonian weddings, the night is spent eating and dancing the Oro, though in Macedonian weddings the way they do it is a little different.  The Oro is a giant line dance - think My Big Fat Greek Wedding - with simple steps that I never can quite get down, but it doesn't matter - what matters is you get up there and dance.  There are sets of about 5 or 6 songs, starting slowly and ending at a more rapid beat - the shifts between rhythms always got me off step - and you just keep dancing.  At this wedding, often at the last song the line broke and people just danced in small groups!  Occasionally they would also just play songs to dance to like we would dance, and the music would be a combination of Albanian, American, Italian and Spanish, from what I could tell!

And eat - OMG, we ate!  We started off with a table full of salads, cold cuts, cheese, and potatoes, and then the waiters brought chicken steak and what looked like a chicken fried steak.  After awhile they brought a slice of veal and put on top of that, then after another pause to digest they brought a thin steak, followed after another pause by a slice of roast beef.  I though we must be done, but at about midnight they cleared our plates and brought each of us an entire trout and french fries.  All of this was accompanied by all the beer, wine, soda, or water you could drink.

The dance group plus Luli and Lindi
At what I think was the end, Elona, Lule, her brother, and a couple of others disappeared and returned in traditional costumes to dance for all of us.  I don't know how long the party went on after we left at 1:30 am - as it was with the drive we got back to Gostivar at close to 4am.  But what a night and what a wedding!

On top of all this, the new Peace Corps trainees arrived in September - the 17th group to arrive.  I love watching thenew arrivals' nervousness, excitement and anticipation, knowing that their time will be filled with adventures and frustrations beyond their knowing and our ability to tell them.  Living on your own in a different culture is fabulous, and it is also definitely challenging to be far away from home, know no one at your site, and have to figure out how to fit in, what to do, and how best to connect both at work and in your community.  But what a ride!  I think of returning and trying to explain it to someone else, and know that words will fail me.  You just have to experience it to understand what a privilege it's been the last three years!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Pipes Are Calling

I've decided that I don't need a dog as an excuse to take a walk in the morning, so on the mornings that I am not commuting into Skopje to work I've been taking a walk along the Vardar river.  The heat has broken, and the morning was cool with a touch of autumn in the air.  The water in the river, now fed only by springs and not by mountain run-off, is so clear it is invisible.  The mountains that frame Gostivar stood out in sharp relief in the fresh morning air.  The higher trees are just beginning to change color.  Pigeons lingered by the banks drinking and taking their morning baths, and a water ouzel dipped in and out as it flew along. 

I'm marking the end of my last summer in Gostivar and I view these things with sweet melancholy.  This time is Gostivar at its best.  The great diaspora are heading to their homes in Europe and elsewhere, and the pace of the city has slowed.  During the evenings and into the night crowds still gather at coffee shops and benches in the park, and the chocolate donut man, roasted corn vendors and toy/miniature car merchants still fill the central square.  But the crowd is more subdued and the noise now falls gently onto my ears.  Next week school will start and summer will officially be over.

Inside Luli's coffee shop
Many of my friends are leaving or have left.  Only a handful of my Peace Corps class remain in country, and in a couple of months my friends from the next class will start leaving.  Elona will soon start a new job and her eldest, Lule, will start public school.  Next week, too, marks the first anniversary of the coffee shop, and before too long the tables will be pulled in from the outside to hunker down for winter.  Vjosa leaves tomorrow for NYU and a great adventure, and soon Gordana too will leave for a new job in Skopje.  Many of the students we worked with are starting college.  And before I know it, it will be time for me to leave as well.

Looking down on Saranda
My nephew Clark came and visited - he'd always wanted to go to Albania and it was my pleasure to take him.  I finally made it to the southern coast, which, as you can see, is spectacular.  We took a ferry over to the Greek island of Corfu, which has always sounded magical but after Albania felt only like a tourist trap.  The trip back was fun, however.  A very strong wind was blowing and we were pounding into the current.  We all stayed outside and leaned against the front railings of the ship and got soaked - it was like riding a roller coaster!  We swam in the sea, ate wonderful food, and found magical places for Tirana time.  One of the favorite things that happened, though, occurred on the way home.  Clark was at the airport, Elona was with the kids and family members in Vlora, and Luli and I were heading back together on the bus - a 5 hour or longer trip.  We had driven quite some way that day, turned in our rental car and didn't have time to eat, so when the bus came at 4 we were starving.  At our first stop, about an hour after we left, we bought some bananas from the banana man at the Durres bus station, which helped.  The second stop was in front of a pizza restaurant, and Luli, who knew the driver, asked him to wait.  He then ordered us each a pizza and brought two fresh pizzas on board for us.  Only in the Balkans would a driver delay a bus- load of passengers so that one could order pizzas, and only in the Balkans would no one mind.

Sunset at Ksamil
Soon my great adventure will end - Ah, but what memories I will have.  I hope I have made some difference here - if in no other way than through the friends I have met and spent time with.  I know my experience here will always have a profound impact on me.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Another world

Another part of Duf across the valley
I spent a wonderful weekend in the mountains in the village of Duf with my friends Kerry, Mary and Gordana, plus Gordana's little baby Goran.  It was wonderful to escape the heat and hang out with 3 friends, eat ourselves silly, take an occasional hike so we could convince ourselves we could eat so much, and just relax.  Thanks, Gordana and family!

I often times forget how different this culture can be from ours, but every now and again I get a stark reminder.  I was sitting the other day with a friend at Luli's coffeeshop when a little girl who was probably about 4 years old got hit by a car nearby.  The car screeched to a stop as the little one crawled toward the sidewalk screaming.  A man in the passenger seat jumped out of the car, scooped the little girl up, and it drove off to the hospital.  A few minutes later a group of women, most carrying babies, emerged from an apartment building.  A woman in the middle of the pack, the mother of the child, was howling, and they all scurried off to the hospital.  A couple of days later, Elona and I talked about the incident.  I asked her if indeed the people in the car, who presumably had no idea who the little girl was, had taken her to the hospital.  Elona assured me they had and why not?  She should be taken there immediately!  I replied that in the US, if someone did that, they would probably be arrested for kidnapping, leaving the scene of an accident, and possibly hit and run.  Once they got to the hospital, unless the child was in critical condition, which she clearly was not, the hospital would refuse to treat her without permission from the parents.  Instead, the police and firefighters would be called to come, and the firemen would treat the little girl at the scene until an ambulance arrived.  (This confused her until I explained in the US, firefighters were trained as emergency medical technicians.) The police would seal off the area and start investigating the accident and contact the girl's family so they could go to the hospital with her (I didn't mention that the little girl probably would never be outside by herself).  Instead, in Gostivar, everything happened in about 3 minutes and afterward you couldn't tell a thing had happened.

On Tuesday I'm off to Southern Albania and the Ionian Sea with Luli, Elona, and my nephew Clark.  We'll be near the border with Greece and plan to take the ferry over to the Greek Island of Corfu one day.  It is supposed to be an exquisitely beautiful area, and I can hardly wait!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Happy summer, everyone!  Seems like it's been hot everywhere, and the same is true of Gostivar.  Temperatures have been in the upper 90's and humid most of the summer, with occasional crazy thunder storms blowing through.

Peace Corps was kind enough to fly me to Washington DC in June to inter my dad's ashes at Arlington National Cemetery.  It was very moving to put him there, and it was wonderful to have family around me after such a long time in Macedonia.  I'll miss my dad terribly, and it was so important to me to be able to be at Arlington for the ceremony.  Thanks, Peace Corps.

I also took the time to fly out to Arizona to see my mom.  She is pretty dog-gone healthy for being 91.  I took her out to several lunches and she loved getting out and having good food and a beer.  My friend Sherry also flew into Phoenix and spent a day with me and my mom, and we had a blast talking and shopping.  Mom loved it.  She also took this picture of my mother and me.

Ramazan started on July 20th.  Since 3/4's of the population of Gostivar is Muslim, it's a very important time.  It's a time to reflect on the past year of life, to remember the poor, and to feel solidarity with the greater community.  Every year Ramazan (Ramadan in other places) moves up 10 or 11 days, and this year it's dead in the middle of summer.  Observers do not drink or eat from sun up to sun down for 30 days, and in this heat, I just can't imagine it.  It definitely changes the rhythm of life here!

In the summer, Gostivar has always been a city that comes alive at night, and during Ramazan that's even more true.  After iftar, the traditional meal ending the day's fast at sundown, everyone comes out on the streets and the city takes on a festive air.  Vendors are everywhere selling freshly made donuts with chocolate sauce, nuts and seeds, corn on the cob, toys and other trinkets.  People walk around and visit, sit in the park and people-watch, and lounge at the numerous cafes and talk about politics and life.  Families, including small children, stay up until midnight and beyond, and many revelers are still at it until 3, when the traditional breakfast is served and the fast begins again.  Then everyone goes back to bed and and those who can sleep away as much of the day as possible. 

During summer, the population of the town also surges.  Families that have emigrated to the US, Europe, or elsewhere all come home.  Single men come to find brides and get married, and there is a spate of weddings during the summer months.  Suddenly you see big SUV's, Mercedes and other image cars clogging the streets and causing traffic jams.  Of course, this is all very important to the locals, because the diaspora also brings money home, and the merchants generally make most of their profits during this time.  I must admit, though, I look forward to Gostivar quieting down to its usual easy-going times.  Now that I live downtown, I get to experience the party atmosphere and its noise first hand!

baby storks waiting for their next meal

The end is in sight, though.  At right is a nest of baby storks.  They and their parents mark the passage of summer for me, and these guys are getting big enough that soon they'll be flying and not hanging around home waiting for their next meal.  It also marks the start of the countdown for my days in Macedonia.  At Peace Corps we're busy planning for the new group of volunteers who will arrive in September.  At the end of their training, in Dec., I will leave Macedonia and return home.  I both look forward to it and dread it.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Happy Sunday!  Sunday mornings I always fix myself a special brunch breakfast - today it was Macedonian Scramble - fried new potatoes, scrambled eggs, and ajvar!  Yum.  The strawberries are in and apricots are coming in - fresh wonderful luscious fruit.

It's been an interesting week, filled with the stuff that life is made of.  First the sad, Luli's father died suddenly.  He had a massive heart attack and stroke last Saturday and died Monday morning.  Luli's week has been filled with the rituals that surround death.  In Islam the body must be buried within 24 hours, so the first day is filled with preparing the body and burying it, all done by men.  Then comes visitations by family and friends.  There was a chair with a white cloth on it in front of Luli's house, which is both a way of announcing the death and an invitation to come visit.  On Wednesday, I was invited to a big luncheon with family.  The women gathered upstairs and the men outside in the family compound.  First the younger women served the men, and then we older women came down and were served.  Later, we returned upstairs for more visiting.  I had trouble understanding the women who spoke Gostivarian Albanian, but one woman was nice enough to speak 'clean' Albanian - literature Albanian, and we chatted for quite some time.  They were all so sweet, encouraging me to eat the special Albanian dessert and making sure I had everything I wanted.  I shall so miss the sense of community that is here when I leave

Wednesday was also the day my friend Ilmi defended his master's thesis, so I went up to the university to watch it.  Family and friends are invited, and Ilmi gave a presentation about his research.  It's very interesting stuff - about cross municipal cooperation.  As these countries develop their ways of governing, they struggle with what we struggle with - what should be handled locally and what in larger units?  How do you balance the wisdom of small government that knows what's needed in the area with the efficiency of large government?  I think of New Hampshire, which has tons of local control but is so bloody inefficient, and the battles between states rights and the federal government, and know all governments struggle with this.  Right now the EU has a massive crisis and is desperately trying to figure it out what to do and how to do it.  So anyway, it was a very interesting subject, and he is a leader in the field!  After the presentation, his committee asked him questions and took a break so he could consider the answers, and then people in the audience asked questions.  Of course he passed with flying colors, and afterward there was a celebration with goodies and drinks!

I've also been part of a team that interviews sites that would like to get a new volunteer.  That too has been interesting.  Organizations want volunteers for all kinds of reasons, and it's nice to be part of the process.  I go to sites around Western Macedonia, and it's great, because I have met many of the people we interview.  I can see how in 2.5 years I have become part of the Polog Valley region!

Finally, I helped organize a trip for 11 volunteers to go to my favorite hotel in Jance.  On the way, they're going up into the mountains to ride horseback into a remote location and will have a game dinner - boar, rabbit, or venison.  9 of them crashed at my house the night before, and I'm anxious to hear their stories when they return today.  I'm babysitting Spikers, so I couldn't go.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Memorial Day

Lt. KC Diehl, United States Army Air Corps
Monday's memorial day will have a special meaning to me.  My Dad, Kenneth Clark Diehl, died on January 16th of this year, shortly after his 93rd birthday.  He was a veteran of 3 wars, World War II, the Korean War, and Viet Nam.  He was from the old school:  dashing, handsome, loyal and patriotic.  He was a man of his times and could also be chauvinistic, mule-headed and domineering.  Poor guy, he was blessed with 3 daughters that could be equally as mule-headed as he was!

He loved flying, his family and the outdoors.  His father had been one of the first national park rangers, and he grew up in the Tetons, Yosemite and Sequoia.  He and his brother would hike into the back country of whichever park his dad was at and camp and fish for days.  He hiked through his 70's, and tried scaling Mt. Rainier in his 60's.  It was a love my mother did not share with him - she went camping with him once and said if she couldn't stay in a place with a bed and sheets, she wasn't going!  But he passed his love onto 2 of us, and my older sister particularly continues to camp, hike and fly-fish.

His career in the Air Force was an accident.  After WWII, he got out of the service and worked for Standard Oil, but was recalled for the Korean war.  He was a part of research and development and got to fly all kinds of experimental air planes, one of which he crashed!  He was going to return to Standard Oil, but one thing led to another, and the Air Force became his career.  He flew fighter planes, KC 97's and 135's (refuelers), and ended his career flying U-2's.  When I was in college he was in Viet Nam, with a $10,000 price on his head.  It was such a relief when his tour was done.  After Viet Nam, he retired and left flying, but he always missed it.

If he had a Jungian archetype, it was the hero.  He was always ready to sacrifice himself for someone else, whether they wanted it or not!  Ironically, one of the things that made him so resolutely human was that he always wanted to be larger than life - always the best - and when he couldn't be the best, he quit.  But he always will be larger than life for me.  He'll always be my hero.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Meditations on Nation States

One of our Gostivar delegates at the model UN
Last week Kerry took her team to the model UN, and I tagged along to help out where I could.  That, combined with a conversation with a former Macedonian army soldier who had fought in Afghanistan (yes, Macedonia is part of the coalition of the willing), got me meditating on nation states.  After the end of WWII, his family had been forced from their home in what is now the northeastern part of Greece around Thessaloniki and as Slavic Macedonians, and moved into the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.  The boundary that exists today, which had been blurry for centuries, was established .  This is the story of the Balkans, with shifting boundaries as a result of many, many wars after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Nations are rather like football teams.  We proudly proclaim our allegiance, identify with our nation, and become 'different' from others not from our country.  Yet it is a fairly recent phenomena.  The United States acquired its boundaries in a number of ways, through wars that we won or reached a compromise about and through outright purchases.  How did the people in those areas feel when suddenly they became a territory of the US instead of France of Spain?  Americans felt we had a right to much of the land through 'Manifest Destiny'.  Our country isn't even contiguous but hop-scotches around.  But now our boundaries aren't contested, and we are Americans.

Other places weren't so lucky.  Nations that didn't exist before were carved out by winners of conflicts from empires that collapsed or were defeated, often for political gain.  People living there had little say.  How did Afghanistan come into being?  Do the Pashtuns and the Waziheris consider themselves Afgans, or is that just a citizenship dreamed up by Western nations.  Have the Western powers forced this concept of nationhood onto a world that doesn't identify that way?  How about Hungary?  The Magyars didn't arrive until the 9th century, long after the Slavs had come through, and they are considered recent arrivals by the Greeks.  Why isn't it called Dacia?  Many problems in this region and in the world are caused by these artificial lines.  But how else can we organize our world?  I don't know.  Anyway, enough meditation for today!

Looking up at the King Mathias Church in Budapest
I have had the great fortune to travel this spring.  I took a river cruise up the Danube from the Black Sea up to Budapest - my friends and I had a great time and we saw some beautiful places.  I'm slowly loading pictures up to Facebook, so if you want more you'll be able to see it there.

Looking down the forest path on Snake Island
Yep, there are snakes on Snake Island

View of Albania and village from the Island

After coming back, Kerry and I along with a couple of other volunteers went down to Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa on the southwestern border of Macedonia to visit the Museum of Water and Snake Island.  The weather was perfect and the lakes were crystalline clear.  We had to get a taxi from the nearest town and drive over a mountain on a dirt road to get to the village closest to the island and then hire a local fisherman to ferry us out to the island, which is part of a national park, and it all added to the adventure of the day.  We tromped all over the island seeing turtles, Roman and byzantine ruins, nesting cormorants, and yes, snakes.  It was a glorious day!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Blessed Springtime

Berat at night
The storks are back!  As I ride the bus north, there they are, fussing in their nests, rebuilding them, making a new home to lay their eggs in.  Although the weather has been 70 degrees some days, we've had a couple of light snows since April began.  But the trend is there, the mountain are greening, and flowers are blooming.
A couple of weekends ago Elona, Kerry and I took a quick weekend trip to Albania.  We had the best time - it was so gorgeous.  Albania is warmer than Macedonia, and the farmers were planting, the valleys were green, and the high mountains still covered in snow.  The first night we were treated to a feast by Elona's mother.  Her family is so very sweet and gracious!  Then early the next morning we climbed on a combi to Tirana and then another to head south to Berat.

The trip itself was exceptional - down steep and narrow mountain roads, through the river valleys, and up again through cracks in high mountain ranges.  Shqiperija, the Albanian name for Albania, means home of the eagle, and you can see why.  And as I've said before, I love taking local transportation.  There's a degree of unpredictability and adventure that appeals to me.  I must admit, however, that I was happy to reach Berat.  We picked up a family outside of Tirana, and 5 of us plus a baby were squished into a seat meant to hold 3.

We stayed in a hostel in Berat that was lovely.  The owner gave us Rakija under the grape arbor in the garden, and at night sang opera and danced with us.  During the day we wandered around a castle, parts of which are still being lived in.  As you can see above, it's a beautiful city.

Kerry taking a picture by Enver Hoxha's old house
Then another early morning, and off to Gjirocaster.  Interestingly, we went through some oil fields.  All through one valley there were derricks upon derricks - some active but most not.  You could smell the oil that was being pumped and processed, a strange counterpoint to the green valley.  We passed by Trebeshina Mountain, massively framing one side of a valley, and finally into Gjirocaster, named for a woman who leapt to her death rather than be captured by the enemy.  It is known both for its castle and the houses.  Rich families lived there long ago and seemed to compete with each other in who could build the most beautiful house.  The castle/fort was also interesting - it was used as late as WWII both by the guerillas and the Nazis.  We again stayed in an amazing guest inn.  When we went up to the castle, we told the owner we would be back in 3.5 hours, and when we returned his mother had fixed a wonderful traditional Albanian meal for us.  We felt completely spoiled.  Both Berat and Gjirocaster are UNESCO heritage sites, and it is hard to describe how beautiful they are. 

Students lined up for their turn to spell
Last weekend was the National English Language Spelling Bee.  I've helped organize it for the past two years, and I must say, it is an amazing event.  It's not like our national bee.  We have qualifying bees all over Macedonia, and this year over 4000 students tried out, and 905 qualified.  Over 92% of those showed up in Skopje for the bee, an incredible percentage considering that they, their school, or their municipality had to find transportation to get them to Skopje.

Aleksandra gets her certificate from Ambassador Wohlers.
Our bee had winners in 6 grade categories, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, first and second year of high school, and third and fourth year.  We started at 10 and ended at about 6, and considering how crazy it was with last minute room changes and adjustments, it went very well!  The kids had a ball, and one of the things I love about our Bee is that it gives some of the kids from villages the chance to see Skopje for the first time ever and compete with kids from all over Macedonia.  This year I'm happy to report that one of our girls from Gostivar was national runner-up for year l/ll high school, and was presented her certificate from our new Ambassador.

And tomorrow I'm off again on another trip, this time a Danube river cruise from Bucharest to Budapest.  There's too much to see, and too little time!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

O Happy Day

The end of a long winter is in sight - by the weekend temperatures are supposed to be in the mid-50's and hopefully almost all the piled up snow will melt!  Before then we have one more little snow shower forecast for tomorrow, but the signs of spring are unmistakable.  Next Wednesday is Dites e Veres for the Albanians - the day of summer!  It's a big picnic day, but this year they may have to picnic by left over snow.

Int'l Women's Day flowers!
Late winter also brings International Women's Day!  Working women are generally treated to lunch and families bring them flowers and other gifts.  This year Kerry, Elona and I celebrated by going up to my favorite restaurant in the village of Vrutok.  It is right by the origin of the Vardar river, and they've used the water from the river to make a little trout fish farm and build a restaurant on the banks of the river.  (BTW, the two big kinds of fish eaten here are trout and carp ((called crap in Macedonian)).  They farm both, and carp is surprisingly good.)  It was snowing that day, and as we climbed the hill up to Vrutok the scenery was so beautiful.  We sat by the enormous glass windows in the restaurant, and enjoyed the view of the river and trees covered with freshly fallen snow.  We had an enormous salad, hot pita bread, and fresh cooked trout and potatoes - delicious.  As we left they gave us each a carnation - they are always so friendly and welcoming!  When we returned to Gostivar Luli and the kids, Lule and Linde, were waiting with a rose for each of us.  It was truly a special day.

Yesterday was Gostivar's qualifier for the National Spelling Bee.  The National Bee has become quite an event.  Last year we had over 500 kids there, so we made the qualifiers tougher for this year, but with the growing number of communities participating, we may have as many or more this year.  We had 231 students from 5th to 12th grade turn out in Gostivar.  They had to spell 10 words from their grade's word list to qualify, and 44 kids qualified!  Each student was tested individually, so it was quite a busy day!  When a student did qualify, it was so fun to hear their friends as they walked out of the room waving their invitation to the National Bee.  They whooped and hollered and cheered!  And I can't tell you how wonderful it is to see all these kids working so hard to learn English and have to spell some pretty challenging words.  The other thing that was so cool was that it was truly a multi-ethnic event.  This year we added Turkish translations to the Albanian and Macedonian translations to encourage more Turkish students to turn out and it was successful.  Of our qualifiers, 19 were Albanian, 18 were Macedonian, and 7 were Turkish.  I am so grateful to everyone who helped:  the teenagers from the Young Men's Leadership Project, Verica from Club GLOW, the teacher from the gjimnasija, the husband of another teacher, and Sarita - all of whom helped with translations, tracking, keeping the kids under control as they waited, sometimes for a very long time, and general organization.  And a special thanks to Mustafa Qemali Ataturk School for letting us hold the qualifier there.  Now on to the National Spelling Bee on April 7th!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

It keeps a'coming!

What greeted me in Gostivar!
 Saturday I was in Prilep to do a project design and management workshop for some wonderful teens in Phebe's CLIPS program.  Now project management and design is not the most fascinating subject for most people, much less high schoolers, but these kids jumped right in and designed some great projects, and it was truly a delight to get to work with them.  The only worry - it was snowing all day and I had to get back to Gostivar.  After a marvelous lunch at the only Thai restaurant in Macedonia, I hopped on the 4:30 combi that cut across the middle of Macedonia to Kichevo.  Halfway there, we were slipping and sliding all over the road, and the driver shouted out for people to sit in the back.  With the weight distributed over the rear axle, we made it safely to Kichevo, a little late but all in one piece.

The ticket master told me the bus to Gostivar was coming at 6:45, so I sat on the bench outside and waited.  A man asked me where I was going, and I said Gostivar.  He was going to Skopje, so we would be on the same bus.  Thank heavens.  The bus hadn't arrived by 7, but the ticketmaster stuck her head out the window and shouted something, and the man took off running.  Turned out the bus had decided not to come into the station, and we needed to meet it out on the highway.  I was very relieved when it arrived and I climbed on.

But that didn't last long.  About 20 minutes into the trip we came to a dead stop.  Traffic was piled up and not moving.  Of course, having been traveling now for several hours, I really needed to use a bathroom.  We were in the foothills of the mountains, cars, buses and trucks in front and in back, and no place to go.  I was trying to figure out what might be next - sleeping all night on the bus (but with no bathroom in sight), giving up on vanity and relieving myself in front of the world, or waiting for the bus to either turn around or get going.  Fortunately, after a half hour we did start moving again, and about 30 minutes later we reached the crest of the pass where the driver pulled over by the restaurant and gas station there and announced:  "Pauser.  Decet minuta."

The trip over the mountains was magical and felt like a Tim Burton set.  Snow was piled high on both sides, but tree branches covered in snow hung over and alongside the bus, like white fingers extending out from a tunnel trying to grab us.  There was not much we could ever see but white, white and more white.

Note the snow is piled higher than the car

When we reached Gostivar, the driver pulled over to the side of the road and dumped us Gostivarans out.  There was no way he was going to try to navigate the snowy streets of Gostivar.  I walked up the exit into Gostivar, wondering what I would do if a car came - the passage was only just wide enough for a car.  Fortunately none came, and I reached the surreal streets of Gostivar.

Looking down the narrow walkway
Since there were no taxis, I walked from the edge of town to my apartment.  It had snowed enough that the snow covered the ice well and it was not slippery, but the paths were narrow and the snow was piled up was higher than I am tall.  Lights were on, and occasionally I'd pass a cajtorija where men were playing cards.  It was quite beautiful and dramatic, quiet as only a city covered in deep snow can be.

I was very happy to get back to my apartment and snuggle in, but for the most part, I did enjoy the ride.  Each and every day is an adventure!!!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

What a world!

Me, Kerry and Marlys jumping for joy!
As I think I mentioned in my last blog, I received an extra 30 days of leave for extending a year in the Peace Corps.  The days are added on to the end of my service, so now my completion date is the end of December instead of the end of November, but it's nice to have those days in the middle of service and Peace Corps gave me a free flight home!  I took 3 weeks of those days for my trip home, and took the rest for my trip to Egypt with 5 friends.  I won't say much here about the trip except it exceeded any and all expectations I had.  It was fabulous.  I've posted my pictures with some commentary on Facebook, so if you want to see more you can see it there.
I do want to comment on Egypt, however.  I feel like we were there at a very privileged time.  Their new parliament met for the first time and elected its president, and they celebrated the first year anniversary of the revolution.  There is much happening, and which way it will go is as yet uncertain.  For the friends and wonderful people I met while I was there, my fingers are crossed for a better life.  Here are some random observations:
1.  You've heard tourism is down - one tour guide said it was down 80%.  To put that in perspective, Kacy told me that when friends of hers went there two years ago, they had to get up at 5 in the morning to get to the pyramids early enough to avoid the crowds and get to climb up to the burial chamber in the great pyramid.  In contrast, we went in the middle of the day during high season, went right in, and had only 3 other people in the chamber when we were there.  While it was wonderful for us and we were treated so well, it has to be so difficult on a country whose GDP relies to a large extent on tourism.
2.  Speaking of that, everywhere we went, we saw huge projects that had been put on hold.  Some were government projects waiting for revenues to improve and the new government to be established, and some were by major corporations holding back on their money until they could see what way the wind was going to blow.  So economically, Egypt is experiencing at least a double whammy.  And given that we saw a number of people living on the edge, it does not auger well for their future.
3.  Despite that, people were cautiously optimistic.  They love their country and are hoping that the new democratically elected government will return Egypt to glory.  They are a bit nervous and impatient and suffer terribly when there is an abuse of power, but they maintain hope for a brighter future.
4.  Alexander the Great became the ruler of Egypt because he respected their religion while the (at that time) ruling Persians did not.  There is a lesson there that we need to learn.  Religion was very important to almost everyone we met and they were all well-educated, liberal Egyptians.
5.  Side note, if you travel, I would encourage you to be adventurous.  While it was cold at night when we slept in the desert, that was an especially magical day, and off the beaten track for most tourists!
Abul Simbel
6.  The people are exceptionally gracious.  It was wonderful to get a chance to talk for hours to our friends who were our guides and drivers, and they will forever be in my heart!

One more picture and comment:  that's me in front of Abul Simbel.  Since I was young and National Geographic magazine featured the danger of Abul Simbel being covered by the rising waters of Lake Nasser and the Aswan Dam, I have dreamed about being there.  I actually got tears in my eyes when I rounded the corner and there it was!  I still can hardly believe I was able to live my childhood dream.

Gostivar buried in snow
Now we're back in Macedonia, and just in time for a record snow and cold spell!  It's a hardship in a country which such a large percentage of people living below poverty.  We had one day where the temperature actually got above freezing for a few hours, and the ceiling in my apartment started to drip.  I called the landlord, who gave a Slavic shrug and said, "oh, well, it's an old building."  We've had a pile of snow, and I'm not looking forward to the thaw.  Besides the reappearance of the leak, it will be icy and there will be water everywhere.  On the bright side, the garbage may once again be picked up!
Downtown Gostivar shivering
Stay warm - I hear Spring is just around the corner!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Home for the Holidays

My beautiful 90 year old mom
As part of extending for a year, Peace Corps gives volunteers 30 days vacation and pays for a trip back to the US.  I did a SW loop, from Phoenix to visit my folks, to Riverside to see BFF Sherry, to San Francisco to see my younger sis and Chris and partners, and finally to Tahoe for the annual Wiggum Ski Fest.

It's hard to be so far from home, and especially so far from my parents during their last years.  My dad is not doing well, and it was difficult to see him so uncomfortable and in pain.  My mom, on the other hand, is now doing terrifically - look at that good looking woman!  We went out a couple of times for lunch, shared a PF Chang dinner in her room, and talked about everything, including current affairs.  I treasured every moment I got to spend with her!

Then on to SoCal for a great time with Sherry.  She owns an antiques and collectibles store that is such a slice of life.  I love going down there just to hang out and laugh, and laugh we always do.  The most precious moment was when one of her customers brought in his daughter and a friend of his.  He'd traded some work with Sherry and arranged to surprise them there with their Christmas presents.  He sat them down on two old rocking chairs and had Sherry bring out their wrapped gifts.  Watching their eyes light up as they unwrapped the treasures he'd picked out was a privilege and a joy - he'd done a wonderful job!  Every moment there was special - Ubaldo and his mom spoiled me, Jed and I had political discussions, and I was included in the movie clubs discussion of the movies and party!

Happy Hanukkah
Sherry and I then flew up to San Fran - her daughter, my son and my sister all live in the Bay area.  I feel like I ate my way through the city - so much delicious food.  I had my first steak in I can't remember how long - I do miss good cuts of beef deliciously prepared - as well as dim sum and the best sushi I've ever had!  People ask me what I miss in Macedonia food-wise.  Interestingly, I miss both ends of the spectrum.  I miss food that I can just instantly prepare when I don't feel like cooking - cheap, processed food (I'm ashamed to admit I had several packages of cheese out of Mac and Cheese boxes in my suitcase when I returned), and also the really expensive but wonderful variety of restaurant food.  San Francisco is foodie heaven.  Ilana's mom had two parties in the few days, a Hanukkah party and a birthday party, and was gracious enough to invite all the gathering Wiggums.  They were both delightful.

Matt, Kacy, Udi and I inspecting the lobsters

Yes, the Wiggums gathered:  On Christmas Day Matt flew down from Everett and Kacy and Udi came out from NYC for the annual Wiggum Ski Fest up in Tahoe.  We did forget to inform Tahoe that it was a ski fest - the weather up there was in the balmy 50's.  But enough resorts had been able to make snow and everyone sans moi had a great time boarding/skiing.  I had a great time walking, cooking, reading and relaxing.  And as a surprise, Santa Claws brought us a Maine Lobster dinner by express mail!  We feasted on lobster, crab cakes, clam chowder, salad and lava cake one night, and Dungeness crab, lobster, and fresh salmon the next.  Life is hard......It was so much fun hanging out with the family (my sis and partner came up one night), and as an added bonus I even came out ahead on poker!!!!!  Thanks, everyone for their contribution!
Now I'm back in Macedonia, and as a bonus, I got to celebrate a second Christmas.  Orthodox Christmas is on Jan. 7th, and Christmas eve here is a major celebration.  I took some American cookies over to my new neighbor across the hall, and received in return 4 pieces of Baklava.  Gordana's mom made the best bean casserole and sarma that I've ever eaten, and if I don't finish Peace Corps weighing 20 pound more than when I started I haven't tried!  I do love Gostivar.  I met my friend Ilmi at Luli's cafe, and sat and talked with him for a good hour or more drinking macchiatos and tea, then stayed after Ilmi left drinking another cup of tea that a friend of Luli's bought me and chatting some more!  Life here is good for me - it's easy-going and social.  I miss the ease of the US - being able to understand what's being said, knowing where to find things, being able to go where I want to go when I want to go there.  But when I leave here, I will miss the love from my local family, the people, and the warmth of every day life.  You never know what you will find when you join the Peace Corps.  I found a treasure trove.