Saturday, October 6, 2012

Finally Settled In

Well I finally feel like I am settled in my new place. While I technically moved in a while ago, I haven't had time to put stuff away and make my new place my own with my parents being here and life being busy. But I am now completely unpacked...well I have one box left, but it is stuff I don't really use so I put it in a corner and my thought is if I don't go into that box for at least 2 months, then I don't need anything that is in there and can get rid of it all.

My new host mother commented on how much stuff I have and said she had no idea how I managed to bring it all from America. I pointed out all the stuff I have been given from Peace Corps and what was food and such and she decided I didn't have quite as much, but I still have "too many" books. Ha. My goal when I COS is to have less than what I came with, which will be a challenge since there have already been comments about sending me home with a suitcase of ajvar and rakija.

I really do love my new place. It is so bright and airy and it really does feel like home. I think it will be a great place to live for a year. It is so close to everything. I am not literally 2 minutes from school, the bus stop, the market, and almost everything else in town.

I have one large room that has a mini kitchen in it and a balcony. I share the bathroom that is right outside of my room. There is a storage room and another bedroom on my floor, but they only use the room for guests and laundry, so I have the floor to myself most of the time. They sleep downstairs in the middle floor and we eat down downstairs in the garage/second kitchen that opens out to the gorgeous garden. 

Living room/Bedroom area
My bed
This door goes into the hall, but is locked, so its the perfect place to put a little bit of home
My host parents are AMAZING too! Words can not describe how awesome they are. My host mother is a marvelous cook, so I am paying her to make me lunch each day, something I will really enjoy. When we did our site placement interviews I was against living with a family for a few reasons. First, I did want to live on my own to prove to myself I could do it. I have always had roommates in the past, so this was the first time I really was on my own. I also wanted to be able to cook for myself. But now, a year in, I can say that cooking for one over here isn't a whole lot of fun and is expensive if you want variety in your diet. I chose to live cheaply, so I had little variety and almost no meat. With paying my host mother to cook for me, since she is already cooking for her and my host father, I will get lots of variety and lots of Macedonian food (aka lots of salt, oil, and deliciousness). She weighed me the other day (I don't know what it is with me and host mothers who like to weigh me!) and said when I go back to America, she wants me to be 70 kilos. I told her no. That is not what I want.

Friday, October 5, 2012

A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That... in Photos

I promised a photo update after the lengthy text one yesterday.

How I spent my August- decorating 40 brown paper bags and matching cards all differently for the VSN welcome packages for the Mak17 group.
The former Roman settlement of Bargala near Shtip
View from Isar in Shtip
I have always loved fireworks, but now even more after discovering the fireworks setting on my camera.

Pastramalijafest in Shtip- one of my favourite festivals in Macedonia
Celebrating Elena's birthday at Stobi Winery
The barrel room
If you want a humorous, but pretty accurate account of Peace Corps life, this blog has been circling around PC MK this week. We even were emailed a link from our Safety and Security Coordinator who came across it and wanted to make sure we all enjoyed it.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Happy Ending

I have neglected to update not because of lack of material, but rather lack of time. I have two drafts of posts I started within the past two weeks, but somehow I never got around to finishing them. I will attempt to fully write this one to get something posted finally!

Warning, this is a big of a heavy post, but I promise, it has a happy ending!

In the last month, my life has been turned in a complete 180 from where it was. There were a lot of things that I didn't write about on here because 1) I didn't want anyone at home to worry, 2) I don't like focusing on negatives, and 3) I never really know who is reading my blog. But because of the changes that have occurred recently, I feel like I can now go back and fill in some of the gaps.

If you noticed, I never really mentioned work in my posts or told you what I do. I talked about wonderful things like na gostis, adventures with fellow PCVs, and minor quips about daily life, but I never really talked about real life. My first year here was tough. It was really tough. There were a lot of things I struggled with. I had many issues with my living situation. Obviously my heating was an issue as I mentioned being cold all the time, but there were other things too. I lived about a 15 minute walk from the town up on top of a hill where there were lots of families. 15 minutes walk is no big deal, but it does wear you down when you are doing it with 10 kilos of fruits and vegetables from the pazar in 100 degree weather or trying not to kill yourself on the ice and snow while going downhill to school each morning. My landlords were great, but they were quite busy and often in Skopje dealing with health problems so they were not always available to fix problems when they came up. My electricity bills were ridiculously high and I was going above my electricity stipend, which left me paying a lot out of my living allowance. My location was also quite isolating. I had wonderful neighbours that treated me so well, however, it was all families and I didn't really fit in with them. I was treated as a child by many of them and the adults often would leave me to just hang out with the kids. My neighbour kids were great and a lot of fun to be with, but there were many times I longed for an adult conversation. Because of not living right in the town, I didn't really know anyone down in town so my times not na gosti-ing were spent trying to occupy my time alone in my big house (this is part of the reason all PCVs should have an external hard drive and a large supply of books). There were little things too, such as no washing machine (fine in the summer, but horrible in the winter), very limited hot water for showering (max of 5 minutes even if the boiler had been on all day), and of course no internet! All of this was manageable, however, when added to other issues, it became too much.

School was also a challenge for me. I wasn't sure what my place was there or what I could do. My assigned counterpart is a wonderful lady and a fantastic teacher, but very busy. I struggled at times to know how I could help her in the classroom. The education system here is one that has a lot of problems (like any education system frankly) and politics play a large role in every aspect of the school. I wanted to do creative activities and games with the kids sometimes, but had to respect the fact that most of the teachers don't have tenure and they are very worried about their jobs, so they are cautious of what goes on in their classroom. Many of my games would have been too wild for the type of classroom they felt they needed to maintain. So I did a lot of sitting, staring, and not feeling useful. I knew that my counterpart wanted to involve me in class, but I think we were both unsure as to how that was supposed to work. I was also challenged with the fact that there is some dissent between the English teachers at my school and it was really hard being the monkey in the middle. I felt trapped. I didn't want to step on any of their toes and was trying to please them all. The dang Minnesota nice genes were in full force and did my best not to ruffle any feathers, which lead to not a whole lot being accomplished. I tried to focus on the little wins, such as getting my counterpart to use picture flashcards when teaching the students new vocabulary words and incorporating BINGO into class a few times.

Because of my lack of connection to projects in my town, I filled my time with secondary projects through several Peace Corps committees. I became involved in the National Essay Contest, National Spelling Bee, assisted with Model UN, then YMLP and GLOW, and VSN (the Volunteer Support Network). I figured if I had other projects to bide my time until I could get things at site figured out, I would be just fine. I kept setting small goals for myself, such as things will be better by the second term, then by March, then April, and finally the end of the school year. When I saw no hope of improvement, I reached out to my fellow volunteers and spent a fair amount of time with them as a means of obtaining happiness. I wouldn't say I was ever severely unhappy, but there were many days and nights that I just felt useless. I never considered going home and ETing as an option, because then I would have felt like I had failed. For some people it is the right option, but I knew it wasn't right for me.

In June, right after school got out and our Language IST, I set up a meeting with all the English teachers and the Director to share all of my ideas with them and work on figuring out how to involve me more for this next year. This was the straw that broke the camels back when only two teachers came, one 45 minutes late. This was the moment I really questioned why I was here because I didn't feel like it mattered- the people who wanted my help felt trapped by the politics and the others didn't care. I left for YMLP, GLOW, and Istanbul incredibly frustrated and completely unsure how to change my situation. The day we finished YMLP I received a call from my Program Manager at Peace Corps about my VRF (Volunteer Reporting Form that is the piece of paperwork that is hated by pretty much every PCV out there!) because it hadn't been emailed in right. After discussing that issue, I told her about everything at site because I really felt like I had tried every option possible given my current situation. She told me to not worry about anything at site right then and focus my energy on GLOW and that we would talk once that was finished. After returning from Istanbul, I went to the Peace Corps office and talked with many of the staff members there, including my Program Manager. She and I had a long talk that involved her asking me if I was hoping to stay where I was or move. At that point I realized I needed a big change and maybe moving sites was the only way to solve the situation. The Country Director wasn't in right then, but she and the Safety and Security Coordinator promised to talk to him as soon as he came back to the office. I left with a slight weight off of my shoulders knowing that at least I was no longer alone in dealing with all of it.

A week later I had a meeting with my Program Manager and Country Director where lots of tears were shed by me in complete frustration about feeling trapped. After talking about lots of different options, we set up a plan to give it one more try and if that didn't work, I would be moved. The Peace Corps staff made several visits to my town over the next couple weeks and we identified new housing and meetings were held with the Mayor and the School Director. The end of August I was excited about my new living situation and my parents coming, but still apprehensive about how school would go. But I had vowed to give it my all for one month to see if the situation could be improved. It was rocky at start with a school staff meeting where the Director called out the teachers for not being at school when Peace Corps came because they were supposed to be and I felt all the eyes in the room staring at me, some in anger, some in curiosity about my reaction. I was confused, had only kind of understood, and felt incredibly uncomfortable having so many eyes staring through me.

As I said, my life is a complete 180, so clearly something else has changed too! The first day of school we got in not one, but two new teachers. One a young female German teacher and the other, a young female English teacher! Right from day one this new English teacher took an interest in me and demanded that I help her in class. She was outgoing, full of energy, and full of ideas to make class fun for the kids. Plus, she has this "I don't care what the other's think as long as I am doing what is best for the kids" attitude about her that I love! I was a little sad when my parents came and interrupted this new budding site as I moved into my new house and immediately left to be with them, not even spending one night there, and when I had only been able to be in 2 or 3 of this new teacher's classes.

I can now say, one month in that I LOVE my housing and I LOVE the teachers I work with at school. Both of the teachers I work with are extremely focused on doing what is best for the kids and their learning and both are excited to have me in their classes. I now am in almost every fifth grade and sixth grade English class each week and get to spend one class in first grade and one in fourth grade. I have worked with all but the fourth grade class before as quite a few of the first graders were in my class at the kindergarten last year. I have also been able to go out for coffee with the new English teacher several times and can honestly say I have my first local friend who is about my age. I have also started teaching an adult English class two nights a week for a few employees at the Opstina (local government). I have only had one class so far, but I think it will be fun. It is nerve wracking and puts my Macedonian to use a lot, but the three guys I had come this past Monday were all very respectful and nice and supposedly I will get another 2 or 3 students tomorrow too. I am working with the two girls from my town who went to Camp GLOW this past summer to start a Club GLOW in our town and they are both very passionate, intelligent, and wonderful young women and I really don't feel I could have a better two to work with on this project. I have several activities in the works too including two English Clubs for 4th-8th graders, possibly another adult English class, and hopefully finally getting World Wise Schools going where some of my students here will be able to be pen pals with American students. I also still have all of my Peace Corps committees going and wanting to spend time with my new host family, so there isn't a whole lot of "me" time left!

To make this all come full circle, I want to finally share a few last thoughts.
- The Peace Corps staff here is wonderful. Everyone complains about their bosses on occasion or the rules or whatever, but ultimately, it is so clear that they are all there to do whatever they can for each and every PCV here. I know it is their job to support the volunteers here, but they really do an amazing job at it and I don't think get enough credit.

- I remember being told during PST by a current volunteer that the first year can just plain suck, but they then encouraged all of us to stick it out, no matter how hard it is, because the second year can be completely different and so wonderful and that is something I can personally attest to.

- It is very important to find your allies in Peace Corps, whether they be Peace Corps staff members, HCNs, or another PCV. I know if I hadn't had my VSN member/friend/dechko Phil here, I would have had a much harder time. Everyone needs someone, at least one person, that they can completely rely on. While friends and family in America are nice, they can never really understand what it is like, no matter how hard they try. This is one of the things that drew me to becoming a VSN member. You sometimes need someone to just listen to you grip about things that only another PCV can understand.

- One thing that this all has made me really think about is that sometimes no matter how hard you try to change something, you can't. You sometimes have to wait until it changes itself a little and then try again. If my housing had changed, but nothing at school had, I don't think I would be where I am now. It took a change in the teaching staff to shake up the status quo enough to where I could step in and make a few changes.

- I can also say that I have reached the "I don't care" phase of my Peace Corps service and it is a wonderful place to be. It doesn't sound like it, but let me explain a little more. I finally feel like I have reached a point where I have given up caring about what people will think about the small things. I have given up playing polite all the time and getting no where. While believe me I am not stirring up any trouble, I have reached a point where I do what I need to do to have the best experience. Example: Teachers are supposed to stay at school until 1:30 even if they don't have class. Last year, I did that everyday. Sometimes I would be done at 11, but would then sit for the next 2 1/2 hours doing nothing just to play by the rules. Now, I leave when I am done with class. My time is put to much better use planning for my adult class or getting things figured out for National Essay Contest, or spent sitting talking to my host mother. I know that the time I used to spend just sitting there was a great source of frustration for me so to take that away, all the better. That said, I do 100% believe that I needed to put in the time just sitting there until 1:30 everyday last year. I strongly believe that the first year, as hard and frustrating as it is sometimes, you need to play by as many community rules as possible. I think that because of that, I have finally gained the trust of a few more people to the point where I can now put some of my ideas into action.

Ok, enough of the deep post full of revelations. Hopefully I will have a little time to get a photo post up soon to balance all of my text here!

I put a dollar in one of those change machines.  Nothing changed.  ~George Carlin
*Good thing I use denari not dollars!

Friday, September 21, 2012

A Visit From Home

So I feel like I should write about the last two weeks with my parents and Sloans being here, but because of their love of Facebook updates, I feel like almost everyone who reads my blog, knows what we/they did. But for those of you not as addicted to Facebook as my mother, here is a quick photo summary of their trip with a run-on sentence series of captions.

My parents got to meet my host family from PST in Lozovo,
Saw some odd English translations at the grocery store,
Had an amazing meal and cultural experience with my new host family,
Hung out with Phil and visited the old Roman settlement of Bargala in Shtip,
Drove on some horrible roads to Albania,
Spent a couple days in Sarande, Albania,
Swam in the Ionian Sea,
Drove on some more horrible Albanian roads,
Did the Lake Ohrid thing,
Visited Popuva Kula Winery in Demir Kapija,
And had time for a couple family photos in Skopje.
 Ајде чао семејство! Ќе се гледаме во Ноември 2013.

*All of this was accomplished with the help of a few kriglas of Skopsko.

Monday, September 10, 2012

American Invasion: Days 1 & 2

10:39pm, 11:27pm, 12:42am, 1:16am, 3:48am, 4:02am. The minutes tick by as I lay here on my pull out couch with the gentle snoring of my father in the background. Today I ended my sabbatical with Turkish coffee and now I am paying the price. That combined with this retched cold makes for the perfect no sleep combo (and the perfect time to write a blog post of course!). Despite this I know I will awake early in the morning to start another action packed day with my American family.

My parents and Sloans only arrived this past Friday evening but have already experienced so much Macedonian culture. Their trip started with an afternoon visit to my first Macedonian family's house in Lozovo. They got to meet the first people who took me in. My host mother prepared my favourite meal they make, musaka, along with quite a few other things. In typical Macedonian fashion, the glasses were never empty, the plates filled with too much food, and the words "ручи, ручи" (eat, eat) were uttered over and over again. I clearly hadn't prepared these American stomachs for jut how much food they would be eating as even they were pleading with my host mother not to eat any more. The combination of massive quantities of food and jetlag proved to be deadly as eyes started to close. It was time to hit the road before our driver, my father, drifted off to dreamland.

Upon arriving in Kamenica we took a quick walk around the town center to see the church, town square, and buy a few groceries for the morning. Then it was Christmas for Sara with all the American treats that were packed and an early night for all.

Sunday we awoke and relaxed for a short time before we made another trip to the grocery store, this time with eyes open further and minds more curious. On our way down, they got to observe a few of my neighbour ladies making јуфка for the winter. Јуфка is a very thinly rolled dough that is dried and stored. It is then cooked in a large pan with a little water or milk to saturate it somewhat, leaving some of it with the texture of pasta when cooked.

At the store we picked out some typical snack foods that are unique to Macedonia, including: gazoza (a pear/bubblegum flavoured soda), some smoki (peanut flavored puff chips), ham flavoured chips, and an assortment of 5 denari candy bars.

Next we had a quick stop at the police station to get everyone registered (aka. Sara filling out five sets of forms and my parents and Sloans checking out an old Macedonian map).

The day continued with lunch at my new host family's house. We were welcomed into the house and seated around the kitchen table already ladened with several traditional salads and kifli (homemade bread rolls). Before the meal could start, they opened the gift from my parents and then presented each of us a gift (Macedonian flag keychains for them and a gold and pearl broach for me). Then everyone was served rakija and the feasting began. I ushered a reminder that more food was coming after the over eating yesterday, but I am not sure it helped. The meal continued with everyone eating and talking and my head switching back and forth between English and Macedonian needing to translate everything that was said, which was, for the most part successful. Following the main meal was dessert with homemade baklava and three types of slatko (a syrupy sweet dessert with fruit chunks which this time were cherry, fig, and blackberry).

We got a little break from food and drink as my family was shown first my new bedroom and then my host parents downstairs house where they do all the canning for the winter. It's typical for Macedonians to make lots of food in the summer and can it for the winter, but these people take it to a whole new level making hundreds of jars of ajvar, pinjur, slatko, ketchup, juice, rakija, honey, and more. After viewing all the jars, we went out to see everything in the garden and got to view their water powered flour mill. There used to be four flour mills in Kamenica, now they said they are the only one.

Arriving back to my house after lunch, we stopped to see how the јуфкa was coming along and were invited to sit. The lady tried to convince us to eat again by bring out homemade зелник (leek filled phyllo dough). It took some convincing, but finally she accepted that we couldn't eat any more so she packaged some up for us to take home.

After a rest, my mom, Sloans, and I went for a walk up the hill. My mom turned back part way, but Sloans and I continued up to one of the cemeteries that overlooks the town from above and had a chance to get in some good star gazing- the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, the Milky Way... It was very relaxing and calming just sitting up there in the dark looking at the stars.

Friday, September 7, 2012

T-Minus 11 Hours!

My parents and Sloans come today! So excited. My mom updated her Facebook status:

"We must be in for a real adventure. It took three different lines to check in and none of the airline employees had heard of our final destination. Macedonia here we come!"
They certainly are in for an adventure. My town is currently without water. I haven't told them this yet....

Monday, September 3, 2012

The First Day of School

As many of my friends in the US are getting ready for the First Day of School tomorrow, we have already had our first day and let me tell you, school starts out much different here. 

I remember many summers of helping my mother get her classroom in America ready for the start of a new school year. My mother would have spent a good chunk of the summer, and money from her own pocket, getting her classroom ready. It would be very bright, colourful, and fun. There would be different areas of the classroom designated for different things, such as a word wall, math center, etc. Most importantly though, her classroom would be organized. She knew what children she was going to have and we would place name tags and the cursive alphabet on the desks, making sure it was straight! The books in her reading area were alphabetized, all 500 billion of them, and each puzzle and board game had all the pieces. 

(***Disclaimer: The following event happened over 15 years ago, so Sara accepts no responsibility if her, at the time, child's brain remembered this incident a little differently than her father remembers it.***)

One of the things I remember most from helping my mother in her classroom is that the room was fun. It was meant for kids and it was clear my mom knew what she was doing. I have vivid memories of one year she painted a giant tree on a refrigerator box. The tree was then placed over the classroom doorway and a hole was cut in it so the children would enter something akin to the magic tree house when they came to school that first day. As a child, I remember being fascinated by it and wishing I was in my mom's class. My mother, sister, and I were putting the finishing touches on her magic tree classroom and my dad stopped by to check it out. The room looked perfect and was all ready to go, down to the last details, at least in my mother's eyes. However, my father saw a problem. The drinking fountain spicket in the classroom was tilted, not quite straight. Being the handyman my father is, he decided it would be an easy fix and then my mom's classroom would be perfect with its new straightened drinking fountain. After a few moments of tweaking, scratching, and probably some quizzical looks, the drinking fountain was still a little crooked. My dad gave it one last tweak and suddenly water came shooting out at fire hydrant like speeds. Within a few seconds, half of my mother's perfect classroom was soaked. I don't remember what exactly happened next, probably a few inappropriate words from my mother, but my father ran in search of the turn off valve, leaving my mother holding a bucket trying to make the water splash down into the sink below with tears streaming down her face. Her perfect classroom was ruined. The only other memory I have of this event is one that my sister and I look back on with complete joy. We had sponges tied onto the bottom of our feet as we skated across the soaking wet hallway just outside my mom's classroom collecting water and practicing our double axels in preparation for the Olympics. 

The First Day of School is a big deal in America for kids too. There was always the excitement of new school clothes, brand new sharp crayons, unused notebooks, and getting to see your friends again. I know I always tried to wear my new school clothes at least once before school actually happened, but my mother was way to smart for that. The smell of new books, the look of clean school shoes, and the feeling of a new backpack on your back and lunchbox in your hand. Clearly I have education in my blood because these things still get me excited- new school supplies are still one of the little joys in my life. Oh and my family was definitely big into the First Day of School photos out in front of the house that first morning. The idea of the First Day of School still sends butterflies into my stomach with excitement and I do consider it to be a holiday, hence the capitalization of the words. 

Last night I went to bed unsure what the First Day of School in Macedonia would bring. I knew it would be more chaotic than what I am used to based on what I had seen and heard in terms of preparation for the upcoming school year. Well, let's just say, the day was fairly chaotic and I felt bad for the teachers here. For many of them, they were seeing their schedule for the year for the very first time. They were finding out which classes they were teaching and this was still changing halfway through the day. My school has two new teachers this year, both of which were notified at 11pm last night that they should show up today. The 7th graders are without text books and part of the school was without water. Because the teachers move from room to room, the teacher's don't necessarily feel ownership over the classrooms so there isn't the time and effort put into making it look just so. 

I felt bad watching my counterpart and the other teachers running around trying to figure things out with classes and such changing several times. Because the teachers here find out in August, usually late August, if they have their jobs for upcoming school year, the month of September is often spent working out all of the kinks in the school schedule and such. This is something I wouldn't be able to do, so I applaud these teachers for being able to not go insane while dealing with all of this.