Sunday, February 19, 2017

Returning to Lakocerej

"Trust is the glue of life. It's the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It's the foundation principle that holds all relationships."  Stephen Covey

          It's been busy since returning from my visit home and I'm not going to go through everything since then but I am gonna share a couple of highlights. However before doing so one thing that's helped me get right back into the swing of life here was the fact I did have a long break back home. When I returned I discovered my Macedonian had actually improved! I suppose I just needed some time away to relax and let my brain settle in.  I've been focusing on getting to know the new Volunteers that were placed in or around Ohrid and Struga, continued to work with YMLP Struga and really soak in my remaining time here in my village and Ohrid. 
          The new Volunteers around my area are level headed, mature and a lively group. They're working very hard to settle in and I'm enjoying getting to know them. I keep reminding them to not be frustrated about their language skills and to just keep practicing.  It isn't easy but that's one of the challenges of being a Peace Corps Volunteer.  That also ties into my work at YMLP Struga. Since the departure of one of the Mak 19's, YMLP Glow hasn't had an official mentor. That's now changing with a new Mak 21 Volunteer deciding to pick up the torch of mentorship.  However, I wanted to have my guys do a couple of events with the girls to endorse more cooperation between YMLP and GLOW Struga. So I asked another volunteer to come and do a self-sefense session with both groups, separately, that went really well.  We also had a combined session with GLOW Struga on Masculinity & Femininity about stereotypes that was attended by all of the Volunteers in the area.  
          It was led by my fellow Mak 19 extende Alex. The session was on how socially strict gender roles aren't necessarily healthy or true. For example men can cook and be good at it. Girls can successfully play sports, lead and feel sexy. Again, Eastern Europe is very traditional so a session that can seem obvious to many isn't necessarily the case here.  I made sure to keep quiet during the session but once Alex was finished decided to share my experience of being labeled by a stereotype in the Peace Corps. 
          I said, "I'm white, male and Southern. Since joining the Peace Corps I've been called by other Volunteers a racist, sexist and misogynist. I was told those things without people knowing who I was, my background nor my family. Being told those things didn't stop me from participating in the  YMLP camps, nor did they prevent me from starting YMLP Struga or working with GLOW Struga. There will always be people that try and label you. In those moments you find out your character. You reveal how THEY really are because they're judging you without knowing your character or talents. Never forget that and be you."
          The following day I was back in Struga for a joint session with the Ohrid/Struga Mak 21's and  their host families.  It's a new program designed to talk about cultural differences and to do activities to show what everyone does have in common. I was happy to participate so I could continue to learn more about the new volunteers and share a lesson or two from my experience.
          Immediately after that I returned home and was surprised to see that my host family was having a Sunday dinner!  So I sat down and started chatting with everyone. It was Goce's sister and her family who I hadn't seen since before the summer and they were clearly quite surprised that I was comfortably conversing with them.  Five hours later we had talked about life in Yugoslavia, their relatives in America, growing up in Lakocerej, what school was like and even a few local ghost stories. Daniella had to translate a bit with some of the older, and village, vocabulary but it flowed nicely.  It was an incredibly stark difference from when I first met them as I could barely describe how old I was much less anything else.

          Some things I've learned:
  • Older men with beards have grown them because a relative passed away. The mourning period is 40 days.
  • I really seem to have earned the trust of my villagers and neighbors. For example one man has me read his mail to make sure he's not being scammed.  Another example is how many women of all ages say hi, or small talk, with me. It seems that they all know who I am, my work at the school and that they can chat with me without people thinking something nefarious is going on. 
  • It's been a chilly winter. I'm quite confident in my fire starting, and wood organizing, skills and I've exercised a lot indoors. 
  • Going to work has always been enjoyable, if difficult at times, but it's really fun now. The kids really are comfortable with me and vice versa. The ninth grade started a clothing donation drive just from a lesson we did on Fashion and it's reliance on sweatshops. 
  • Ohrid is wonderful after Old New Year to Easter. Absolutely zero tourists are here so it's just us locals. I've enjoyed it immensely. 
  • There are days that are extremely difficult not because of the language but because you see how life isn't moving forward for most Macedonians. I know I will finish my contract and leave but for many that isn't an option. After becoming close with so many people it's continuously a true punch in the gut but motivates me more to be as fully engaged with everyone as I possibly can. 

Rainbow in Struga after our joint YMLP/GLOW session.
The boys enjoyed Scott's self-defense class. We talked about verbal disengagement, situational awareness and few self-defense exercises. 
Making sure English is fun not a bore. 
I really enjoy chatting with our school's handyman, Naumche. He's a true mechanical genius, has very interesting stories from his army days and is hysterical.
When your friend in the band makes the reservations, just roll with it.
The guys can really jam. Listening to them takes me back to live shows in Nashville, they're that good. 
Grading quizzes.
Ahhhh a kafana filled with locals, it warms the heart.
Clothes for the donation drive our ninth graders created.
Most days I'm either a tree or a spotter but usually both. 
Finally a warm day to sit by the lake.

Walking Bruno requires a harness not a leash. 
          Lastly, since the Lakocerej World Map project is completed we've immediately moved on to our next project, the Lakocerej English Room.  It's part of a SPA Grant, small projects assistance program, that my counterpart and I applied for and was approved in December. It's one of the reasons I extended and you're going to see a post about it in the near future. We're building a new room, equipped with a laptop, three in one printer, projector and usb's for file sharing along with a few lessons on teaching methodology. Personally, I want it to be used not only for media viewing but for students just to go and read in.  It will be practical, elegant and multi-purpose. More on that later though.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Lakocerej World Map Project: The Finished Result

"Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."  Theodore Roosevelt

          We did it.  It took many months of everyone chipping in when they had the time.  Whether that time was between classes or during a free period but the Lakocerej World Map Project is complete. I really can't thank my coworkers enough for their support and participation.  They added their own touches or suggestions to the map which is why it has such a beautiful flourish.

Using the projector we traced the countries onto the wall.
We had to correct and repaint several times. 
Chairs and ladders oh my. 
Wonder how so much orange is in it? Hint:  Go Vols. 
The attention to detail is what made the biggest difference .
Only the oceans were blue as not a single country has blue.
For many this was the finished result. For us, we still had to label Europe in Macedonian and English. But how?  Scroll down to see how we did it.
It takes up the entire wall.
The last thing to do was date it. 
 The beautiful finish.
We assigned each European country a number and then wrote them down so the students can read the text. On the left under the Macedonian flag is for the Macedonian text is and English is under the Peace Corps logo.
It's detailed, elegant and practical. 
          All told it took:  
$10 for paint and brushes. 
$0 for ladders and chairs.
$0 for the projector. 
Time: 2.5 months. 

          For the layout each country, border and the oceans were painted twice.  Where it's white it was painted three times. 

          Now you know that you can do this too. If you can't use a projector then the Peace Corps has a grid system that works as well.  The link for that is here at The World Map Project. 

          Bravo y'all bravo.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Coming to America!

"Home again, home again, jiggity jig.." 

          Last month I went home for Christmas.  Yes, it'd be easy to write about going home and hanging out with my friends and family.  I'd show nice pics of Christmas decorations, food and me in some sweaters. However, I feel you know that by now I don't like to do the obvious. So this post is a mixture of me returning and what I noticed about home.  To my Balkan and European friends this is for you. 

          However, before leaving I couldn't go without having a few final na gosti's with my neighbors. Despite my bags being stuffed to their max, and a little more, I was given MORE gifts to take home. So I ended up carrying a large box of chocolates with me. Now, I transferred through four airports carrying that large box of chocolates, was on the planes with it the whole nine. Got that picture in your head? Good, hold that thought.

          In my final airport before home I was trying to find my gate. I must've been lost in thought because I kept walking and assumed I was past my gate number. That is until I heard, "Well honey I don't know you shouldda thought a that." in that lovely East Tennessee drawl. I whipped right around and didn't even bother looking at the gate number.  Standing there I noticed a middle age guy that just seemed to enjoy life. In the span of ten minutes he had cracked jokes with people, shook a young Marine's hand, thanking him for his service.  Then he gave me the look over, smiled and said, "Who's the lucky lady?" "Hu?" I answered. "Well you're dressed up and you're holding a big box of chocolates."  I looked down and realized I was in my standard teacher's winter outfit.  Jacket, button up, scarf, pants and dress shoes. Then I looked at the chocolates and realized probably everyone else my entire journey home had assumed the same thing and started laughing. "Naaa, these are for my Mom I'm going home for Christmas." He responded, "Well ain't that something. My wife and I are going home to New York, can you believe we have two kids 17 years apart!" "She's hot." I looked at his wife who was blushing with pride. I had to chuckle as they left. The man was overflowing with Thumos, I loved it.

          Ok, now for the observations on returning home. First the obvious ones. Tipping, 18% always. Second, things WORKED and everything, everywhere was clean. Third, drinks were huge and always filled with ice, ice! Fourth, I had to find ways to walk, otherwise you just drove. This is the norm for suburban American, not so for the urban areas.  Lastly, it was wonderful speaking in my Appalachian dialect and having to explain nothing. Everything made sense, always. I acknowledge to anyone visiting it would be exotic or perhaps even difficult to understand people but for me it just made my heart warm. Doors were held open for strangers, people said Ma'am and Sir, beer was cheap and huge. Shots were the norm. (My tolerance is crap and I'm not bothered by that one bit).  Everyone talked about how they either had or were chipping in to help those affected by the Gatlinburg fire.

          There are two major attributes that I noticed:  Space and Heat.  There is so much space in the States. It really is mindblowing and something I took for granted. We have space for anything. Huge department stores, grocery stores stocked to the brim with things people didn't realize they needed. I would look down from the airplane and see a city with more people in it than in all of Macedonia. We have so much space it's remarkable.  When I'm back and settled in, I will be visiting that space, and the people in it, especially out West and in the Midwest. Death Valley, Yosemite, Madison, WI, Minnesota, Baton Rouge I'll slowly visit them all.

Taking off from Vienna I flew over the Alps at sunrise. I felt as if I was between two worlds. The small bumps in the lower clouds are the Alps themselves. It was very cool. 
Ok I had to have one selfie with the family for when I returned. 
The city square with ice rink.
Called beautiful Market Square.
Ice rink. 
I had to snap a pic of those dogs, in Macedonia they're the ones guarding the sheep or pulling cars. 
My Balkan friends cringe away, trust me I did.
"Sir, your options are meat, meat and oj for breakfast." Sounds good, I'll have the spread. 
Cooking some nice, crispy bacon.
Brick and drywall make up the standard apartments not concrete. 
The main lobby at the movie theater. 
This is where my gym was. 
Space, space, space. 
The gym is across from a horse farm. I love it.
Who knew you could buy Ajvar in East TN??
Dessert during family card games are a must. 
Mmmmmmmmmm pizza.
          The second thing, and the only thing, I couldn't readjust to was how warm everything was. The houses were warm, the cars were warm, the restaurants were warm, movie theaters, everything was warm. Yes, insulation is far better and East TN isn't the coldest place in winter. I'm sure those of you from the Northeast, Midwest or mountains are giggling but I couldn't get used to it. Also, I wasn't waiting on a bus or riding a bike at night while it was below freezing. I get it. Furthermore, I didn't realize how much I'd adapted to turning the heat on not by pushing a button but by chopping wood and shoveling coal. Make no mistake I'm not complaining about us having excellent insulation, central heat and air I just wasn't used to it.  A final example of me not being able to adapt was for every shower I took I couldn't finish it until I turned the water to cold then turned the water off.

          Finishing up, I've returned to my second home and am happily enjoying our winter break before work starts up.  As I've only got six months left and our English Room SPA grant was approved so my counterpart and I will be working full time to have that completed before the summer.  With that project, plus teaching while having the Orthodox holidays and slowly preparing for life after my service these last months are going to fly by.  However, I'm grateful to not only have had the time home with family and friends but to recharge and face my most challenging semester as a Peace Corps Volunteer yet. So ajde. (So let's go). 

Friday, December 2, 2016

Thanksgiving 2016

          This past week was Thanksgiving and it was a busy one. For the third year in a row I was the designated turkey maker and had to cook two of them! The first one was for the American Corner's celebration in Struga. It was a very nice dinner filled with a table of good food and people. The second was again at the American Corner but with the YMLP/GLOW groups. Immediately after that I was at a Volunteer's house for an all American Thanksgiving. 

The little guy being brined. (It was only 6lbs). 
Finished up!
The pans I cook with were made at least 25 years ago.
Invited guests to the American Corner's Thanksgiving dinner.
Friday night the family and I watched Shrek. 
Since the subtitles were in Macedonian I everyone understood the film but a couple of times I was the only one laughing. 
Saturday the YMLP and GLOW groups combined for our first ever joint Thanksgiving dinner .
Kait, a fellow PCV, was finishing the last weeks of her service and the GLOW girls gave her a nice sending off.
A few hours later I was in Kicevo for an "All-American Formal Thanksgiving". *
It was tricky finger painting without getting it on my clothes. Clearly I wasn't ready to paint before eating. *
We put our masterpieces on the wall. *
Hanging out.*
One of us, Coco our host, was ready for the photo.*
Everyone made phenomenal dishes. I kept it simple with homemade brownies. *
Thankful for good food, friends and a place to call home. *
Swapping stories.*
They were ready for this pic.*
Bryce's face, on the right, says, "Someone just got burned."*
Then a cinnamon challenge happened. Evidently you have to swallow a tablespoon of cinnamon without water. I didn't know this was a thing. *
Clearly, they're regretting the decision. Hahahaha. *
Sarah was always camera ready. *
          It was a busy week filled with cooking, running around, cooking, work and conversations but I'll take it. I hope that each of you enjoyed your Thanksgiving as well and were able to slow down and appreciate it. 

*Photos taken by Brycen Ek.