The calendar said it was Christmas last week.
I’m not sure it was really Christmas though.
I woke up, got ready for work, and had a day similar to all of the others in my village so far, with the exception of the three dozen sugar cookies I left in the teacher’s lounge. (Merry American Christmas!)
Macedonia doesn’t celebrate Christmas till January. (Christmas for those of the Eastern Orthodox Christian faith is on Jan. 7.)
When I was still living in Sveti Nikole, Thanksgiving definitely had the same feeling as the holiday I’ve gorged myself on every year. I think it’s because the calendar date was right, the atmosphere was right and I had 11 other wonderful volunteers sharing and eating with me.
Christmas wasn’t quite the same, but that’s okay. There was still a lot of holiday cheer.
The weekend before Christmas, I traveled to Delcevo to meet up with a few other volunteers for an early celebration. We ate delicious lentil chili (with hot sauce!), drank mulled wine, shared our first impressions at our new sites, laughed a lot, and watched Christmas Vacation.
We also exchanged silly white elephant gifts. (I got mine at the 99 den and under store. Yes, that’s the Macedonian version of The Dollar Store and it’s just as awesome.)
I loved catching up and feeling connected with my friends. It had been a long week, including some heartache at home after news that a friend passed away.
The best part of the weekend though, was the incredible kindness I found at the bus station.
I looked up the bus times online — double and triple checked. I walked up to the counter 15 minutes early to get my ticket and felt completely dejected when the attendant told me the last bus for the day had departed 10 minutes earlier.
I felt close to tears.
Maybe it was because I looked completely pathetic and lost. Maybe it was my faltering, but earnest Macedonian, asking if there were any other way to get there. I’m not sure why, but another man behind the counter told me to just wait a minute, while he made a phone call.
They called the bus, ten minutes down the road, and had them pull off and wait for me. They walked me upstairs to the taxi queue, explained where to go, instructed the driver how much I would pay, and sent me on my way.
It was the nicest thing I’ve experienced in this country and it came at just the right moment.
After that, I endeavored to have a good attitude, no matter what shape my Christmas took.
On Christmas Eve, I looked up a recipe online and made homemade pierogies for the first time. They weren’t exactly the same as the pierogies we used to have at my grandparents’ house in New Jersey every Christmas, but they were still delicious.
Working on Christmas Eve and Christmas also didn’t feel that unusual. For some reason, my old newspaper insisted on putting out a new edition every day, even on holidays, so I’ve worked through my share.
I steered clear of social media for the day, assuming that an onslaught of smiling families, Christmas trees and the inevitable engagement or two would be a bummer.
I think I made the right choice. Oh, and congratulations to my latest engaged friends. (Clearly, no one understood my directions to not get married or have any major life events while I’m gone.)
Christmas night, I met up with the other volunteers in the area to attend a holiday concert, put on by the music school in Kocani.
The concert was wonderful, and a little quirky, which I loved.
It opened with a song to the tune of “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.” (His name is my name too.) Then there was a song to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” We heard “Let it Go,” from Frozen, twice – once instrumental and once with the choir.
The finale included a piece of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture (which I was only able to identify by Googling the music during the explosions in V for Vendetta).
(Oh and whenever the audience applauded, the clapping was all in unison. This freaked me out a little. I’ve never heard that happen before.)
Best part of the concert, hands down, was the instrumental medley in the middle that featured a long clip of “Eye of the Tiger” (a new holiday classic for me), followed by the Hawaii 5-0 theme song. (We did Rocky punches in our seats. #Americans) There was also Game of Thrones theme music in there, but I’ve never watched the show, so that lost me. (I did just start reading the books. Wowza.)
Friday night I had dinner out with my coworkers, and a loud restaurant meant I couldn’t really follow any of the conversations, so I watched most of the Heat v. Cavs game on the tv behind our table. (I had no idea whether the game was live.) My favorite part of the night was slowly sliding down the sidewalk on the way home, arm in arm with my coworkers, because it had snowed.
There was even more snow this past weekend, when I took an impromptu trip to the capital city to hang out with some friends. (The weekend didn’t quite end up as planned. A truck jackknifed across the only road leading home, so my 2.5 hour bus ride became 11 hours of waiting, but at least now I’m on book two of Game of Thrones.)
It wasn’t a white Christmas, and it wasn’t Christmas like I’ve ever experienced it, but maybe I’ll have to create a new far from home tradition: pierogies and Eye of the Tiger.