It’s not uncommon to walk into the teacher’s lounge and find my coworkers celebrating a special occasion.
It’s a celebratory culture and we celebrate nearly everything with food. We have fried rings of dough, (think doughnut, but less sweet) for new babies and grandbabies. There are chocolates for graduations and college acceptance letters. There are cookies for first place at karate tournaments and candy for new cars. Birthdays get everyone out of their customary seats to crowd around one end of the long, lone table in the lounge where we share baked goods and savory pastries.
We also celebrate first steps.
One of my counterparts has a little girl who is about a year old and just entered the toddling around phase of toddler-hood. The day after her first shaky steps, my counterpart brought in Стапалки, savory rolls shaped like feet.
The best part? Each time a colleague picked up a леб foot, they jogged their first few steps away, saying, “Нека Трчe.“
Like most traditions, the saying wishes the tiny runner good health and good luck. Pantomiming running sets it in motion. (See what I did there?)
It’s interesting though, because after living in my village for about six months, I haven’t seen any girls or women running. I’m the only one.
I’ve mentioned before that running here doesn’t have the same clout as it does in America. I ran pretty regularly during training in Sveti Nikole. It was a great way to explore and there were several other running Americans living there, so I felt less out of place.
I’m the only runner in my village now, and it took me a little while to be comfortable with that.
At first, my students stared and whispered when they saw me coming, eventually saying hello as I passed. Now I get high fives from my younger kiddos and they all wave because I’ve become part of the scenery. I have a few babas that cheer me on, “Bravo девојка!” My students’ parents wave. My coworkers honk their horns. Some of the dedos (grandfathers aka the older generation) tell me to sit and rest.
I still get weird stares from many. I’ve just decided not to let it bother me. I say hello to everyone I pass in the village; whether they return the greeting or stare until I’m out of sight is up to them.
There have been some uncomfortable moments. A man on a bicycle followed me for 15-20 minutes once. He passed me going the opposite way and turned back, followed me when I turned on another road, and rode alongside me for a while, trying to talk to me. I ignored him, and like those bullies your mother used to tell you about, eventually he went away. All Peace Corps Volunteers are issued safety whistles when we arrive. I never run without mine, though I think of it mostly as a way to scare off animals. (I don’t think snakes would be scared of it, but I can also throw it at a snake.)
A man once asked me if I was on a soccer team. I said no. He looked confused.
Cars honk sometimes. Sharing the road is a real problem and I never run with both earphones in, just so I can hear approaching buses, cars, and donkey carts. A man pulled his car over besides me today when I ran, just to have a conversation. I asked him if he needed something and when he said no, I turned around and continued running without another word.
I also scared a donkey today. I came up on it around a bend and it took off up a hill. Whoops. To be fair, I also scared a chicken, but that happens more frequently.
I was really looking forward to running the half marathon last Sunday. It’s been on my Macedonian bucket list and I’ve been sort of training for long enough not to die running it. The night before the race, a volunteer friend said we were free to wear whatever we wanted. It would practically be like New York.
When we found out it had been canceled, a few other volunteers and I decided to go for a run anyway, wearing our race shirts. The race shirts were all over the city Sunday. There were a lot of disappointed runners, but I loved the camaraderie and “let’s run anyway” attitude. One man had traveled from China to run his 100th marathon. Instead, he ran a 12k around the city with a few volunteers.
Many runners even ended up with a medal – the easiest one we’ve ever earned. My two friends and I ran past the start/finish line, just to see if there was anything going on and found a few guys packing up the finisher bags. Granola bars, bananas, and race medals; our prize for wandering past.
The real treat though, was hearing a group of at least 100 runners come up the street, holding hands and cheering. As they slowed through the arch, the entire front row linked, I felt the race energy. They must have shown up on time and taken on part of the course on their own. I loved that. I also loved the “Makedonija” chant they ended with; I joined of course.
We just found out that we’ll be able to run in the race next year for no charge, and have entrance to several other races in the meantime.
So sorry donkeys, I have more running to do.