I’m getting used to having no idea what’s going on.
When my host family goes somewhere, I never know how long it will be, if there will be a meal involved, who we will see or what to expect.
Sunday was no different.
We traveled to Shtip to visit their eldest daughter and her new baby boy. (She lives with her husband and his family. The extended household is pretty normal.) After the traditional greetings of handshakes and three kisses on the cheeks, the women all entered a bedroom where baby Nikola and his mom were resting.
Just before I opened the door, my host dad handed me 100 denar and pointed to the room with the baby. (I have never handed money to a baby in America, so I was already confused.)
I stood awkwardly, gripping the bill, waiting for someone to direct me. (This happens a lot.)
A wooden, rocking crib was in the middle of the room, piled with what appeared to be handmade blankets. A bottle of mineral water with some sort of herb or plant tucked into the label had been placed at the base of the infant’s crib.
An aunt laid a crocheted, white blanket on the ground and then laid the heavily swaddled baby (think A Christmas Story and then add a layer) on top. His limbs stuck straight out like a calf about to be hog tied.
My host mom stepped over him, and then repeated the process a total of three times. She stopped and rubbed her sleeve against his before finally picking him up.
I’ve never seen her smile so much.
She took 1,000 denar from her wallet, rubbed it across him in a cross motion, and then tucked it into his clothing.
I was still trying to figure out what was going on when she extended her arms towards me.
My rule so far in Macedonia has been when in doubt, say yes. So I smiled, opened my arms and took tiny, days old, baby Nikola.
I’ve only known my host family for a week. How trusting they must be to hand this sleeping baby to a perfect stranger. His mom had only met me once for about five minutes.
I’m almost ten years older than her, but in that moment, I felt like the child.
I motioned to my host mom that I was still holding my 100 denar and she signed that I should also tuck it in his clothing. Her explanation was simply, “Ha здравје” – what people say in lieu of cheers, or to your health.
I later asked my language and culture teacher about all the stepping, water, and other traditions and he said they varied by community, but generally signified good fortune for a baby’s life, health, and protection.
I took note that only women entered the room for a long time. My host dad was the first to break the gender barrier, summoning my younger host sisters and I to leave.
Again, I had no idea what was going on. We hadn’t even had snacks and coffee yet, and there are always snacks and coffee.
We piled in the car and the baby’s father and great-grandmother joined us. (If you’re picturing a clown car, you’re not far off.)
The great-grandmother had candles in hand, which was my only clue about our destination.
The drive certainly gave nothing away. We drove about 10 kilometers on winding dirt roads until we abruptly turned off on a gravel pathway that looked seldom traveled. We parked in a grassy opening in the trees and my host sisters immediately skipped toward the tree line.
Stone steps led down to a small chapel. The built-in steps doubled as seating and the view, like most of the country, was incredible. The area was beautiful and I would love to see a service held there. My understanding is that the Eastern Orthodox Christianity here is more about candle lighting and ceremony than services, but when they occur, attendees should be prepared for three to four hours on their feet. (They don’t get cheated.)
I asked permission to take a few photos. My host dad encouraged my curiosity while commenting on the vandalism inside the candle room. In all, they lit about two dozen candles, blessing the new baby boy.
When we drove back, lunch was ready. It was the same home we stopped at last week to visit their daughter and I was flattered that they remembered I was a vegetarian and saved a portion of the potato and cheese dish with no meat for me. (I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. The first question everyone asks is if I’m the American, vegetarian who jogs.)
They also reserved the heartiest portion of the shopska salad. (Cucumbers, tomatoes and onions. It’s vegetarian crack.)
It was a long day and it left me with more questions than answers, as most do. It also made me miss my sweet, baby nephew, who is getting bigger every day back home. At the same time, I felt honored to have been welcomed into the celebration and included in all of the traditions.
I guess I can add host тетка (aunt) to my list of labels.