Last day in MK

It was hard to sleep my last night in Orizari. My mind was trying to process too many things at once, and I was certain I had forgotten a half a dozen things I needed to do or pack. 

My last morning, I woke up early for a whispered coffee with my host parents while my nephew slept. He’s only four, so my leaving hadn’t quite made sense to him, but my host mom said he’d made a fuss about me never leaving Macedonia after I went to bed. “Never Auntie Beka! Never!”

I promised we could have ruchek (lunch) over video once in a while. 

My host mom went overboard preparing me for my ride to Skopje for my last appointments. She made fresh juice, and heated up the remaining zelnik pastry we made the day before, wrapping it in foil so it would stay warm. 

When it was finally time to get in the car and head to the bus station, neither of us succeeded at conveying many words. Many hugs, hand squeezes, and the traditional three cheek kisses. She whispered well wishes and I promised to come back to visit. We both wiped away many tears.

Just one more hug and then I was sitting in the car with my host dad, letting him do all the talking as I brushed at my eyes. He isn’t such a talkative guy, but he’s always been very kind in his few words. He said I will always be their daughter.

And then we waited. In classic Macedonian fashion, compounded by the steady assault of snow and cold that week (-30 C!), the bus was late. The delay gave me time to say goodbye to all my favorite ladies at the bus station, who have been patient, kind, and repeated bus schedules hundreds of times. After an hour, the next bus on the schedule pulled in, and I took that one. 

The quiet small talk I had with my host dad for the hour was perfect, and when he walked me to the door of the bus, there were tears in his eyes. (Obviously, you all realize by now that I was a mess.) 

My sweet sitemate Iris was already on the bus gave me a big squeeze before we shared our goodbye stories. We weren’t prepared for how difficult it was to leave. 

And then our bus broke down. (Macedonia was not even subtle about her desire to keep us a bit longer.) 

It was later than we planned, but we made it to Skopje, went through our final few signatures, meetings, and hugs, and then that was it. Bank account closed, all packed, and my mailbox in the office already relabeled for a new PCV. 

The staff gathered around our bell, a new tradition for Peace Corps Volunteers in Macedonia. Iris and I rang the bell, and then signed the wall with our Close of Service (COS) date and group (#MAK19, you’ve probably heard of us). 

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And then we all just stood there, as the moment washed over us. Was that it? Two and a half years ends with a bell and a sharpie? 

I remembered that I had written a thank you to the staff, partially in English and Macedonian, but I decided only to read the Macedonian part, as most of the group gathered were the wonderful Macedonians who have cheered us on, hugged us, encouraged us, and hugged us again, all through service. 

I only made it a few lines before I needed to stop every few words. And then they all hugged us again. 

That evening and the next day were full of more beautiful, horrible goodbyes. My dear friends from GLOW, who are some of the best people I know. My host sister who drove across the city to meet for just a few minutes before my bus and sent me a text that made me cry in the taxi on the way to the station. 

Then finally, another sweet friend who waited in front of the bus with Iris, waving until we were out of the station. 

I took an extra moment getting on the bus, just before my feet left the ground in Macedonia, and then glanced over at my friends once more and we all laughed. It was the last time my feet will be on Macedonian ground for a while.

Then, the adventure of COS and the long journey to my home in America started with an overnight bus to Istanbul.

Saying Goodbye

The last two weeks have left me bereft of words. Saying goodbye to all the people I love so dearly, who have shared their lives with me for two years, and with no knowledge of when we’ll see each other again has been perhaps the hardest part of my Peace Corps service.

It started with my amazing students. The last day before break, I spent the morning watching Home Alone with my English Club. What an incredible group. Earlier in the week, we finished reading Number the Stars (in English!!) and I could not be more proud of them. It was the first book they’d ever read in English. They have been a joy to work with; always up for my silly games and activities. I’m crossing my fingers that the clubs continue with the resources I left behind.

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I walked out of the classroom where we watched the movie and was immediately blindfolded by my fifth graders, who walked me to their room where I was showered in confetti, hugs, a beautiful framed picture of us and lots of sweet wishes.

The rest of the day was a blur of hugs, cards, and sweet words from all my kiddos. Some of the students asked if I would come back and be their English teacher next year. When I shook my head ‘no’ they simply said, “okay, then the year after that.” They all wished me safe travels and invited me back as soon as I can make it.

One student wrote a card that wished me luck, health, and love, and that all my future students would always listen when I was teaching. (From the mouths of babes, right?)

Some other sweet ones simply told me they loved me and about sent me over the edge with tears.

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My counterparts and colleagues were all kind. I wrote them a thank you card in Macedonian and made a little lunch for everyone. (The tradition here is that when you celebrate, you treat everyone.) More hugs and well wishes, though theirs were focused more on coming back to visit with a husband and children. Ke vidame, I said. We will see.

I did one final presentation at the American Corner, where I’ve done cooking sessions for two years. We drank hot chocolate and decorated cookies. (Because eating your feelings helps.)

Every goodbye has gotten harder. Saying final goodbyes to dear friends – just one more hug, one more see you soon – have been impossible to do without tears.

I said goodbye to my first family, from training, after the New Year’s holiday and I was okay until my host mom hugged me. We both pulled back with tear stained cheeks and no words.

It’s always the mamas that get you.

I sat with my family all day today, our last day together in Orizari. We made a traditional baked pastry stuffed with leeks and cheese this morning, one of my favorite meals. It was the first thing I ate with my host family when I arrived and the symmetry was beautiful.

After dinner, my host mom poured a glass of wine and turned to me and said, “We’re not going to cry, right? No tears.” I told her I couldn’t promise anything.

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We took one more family photo and then I brought out my gifts, just a few small things, and a thank you note that I carefully wrote in Macedonian, telling them how much I have loved being their American daughter and how special my time here has been.

My host mom started to read it aloud, but halfway through stopped and looked up at me with wet eyes. She read the rest to herself and then we sat on the couch for a while, holding hands, not talking; just letting the tears fall. She said she’ll keep the card with her always, keeping it as safe as her passport.

So now I’m sitting here in my empty room, wondering how the time has gone by so quickly. When I get up tomorrow and leave Orizari, I’m not sure when my next visit will be. I do know for sure though, that Macedonia is my second home for always and I’m already missing it.

It’s the little things

With less than a week to go, I’m starting to get lots of questions about what nearly two and a half years in Macedonia was like. But how can you sum it up?

It’s the smallest of moments that highlight this experience for me.

I went to Kocani this week to meet some friends for coffee and when I got off the bus at my village, one other older woman got off too. She asked where I lived. I told her and she said, “Oh! You’re Rebekah! My granddaughters are so sad you’re leaving.”

After a quick back and forth to determine which students she was referring too, I started to make my goodbyes so I could start walking home and she said of course, her son was going to give me a ride home. When he pulled up one of her granddaughters was in the car. She broke out in a grin when she saw the two of us waiting.

They knew where to drop me off without a word of directions and they made me feel so loved and appreciated.

It was only five minutes of my nearly two and a half years, but it’s one of many small memories that have made this time incredible.

Mirëdite Albania

I’ve had a sort of Peace Corps bucket list posted on my blog from the beginning, but I’ve spent the last two years forgetting about it.

So sadly, I wasn’t able to convince Beyoncé to come do a tour stop in Skopje, but we saw Enrique this summer, so that’s something right?

Side note: he hasn’t aged a day (or changed his outfit) since 1997 and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

One of my biggest goals was to visit all of Macedonia’s neighbors: all the countries we share a border with. I finally crossed off the last one, Albania, in October.

It was the last weekend of my service I was allowed to leave the country, as our rules prohibit us from out of country travel for our last three months. My sweet sitemate Iris decided to join me last minute and since we were both pretty short on пари (money), we exchanged 1,000 denars (16 euros) and challenged each other to make it last the weekend.

The bus ride took us on a tour of western Macedonia before finally crossing into Albania. The countryside was beautiful and green, and it was fun to see Lake Ohrid from the other side of the border. It was about eight hours after all the stops, but gave us a nice glimpse of different parts of the country, since we were staying only in the capital, Tirana.

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Fun note: there’s not actually a bus station in Tirana, but our driver spoke Macedonian enough to explain that we had to get a return ticket from a small office near where the bus dropped us off. Bonus: there was an overnight bus option home if we wanted. Easy peasy.

As in Kosovo and Greece, it was a little thrilling to be in a country where I didn’t understand any of the local language. (Well, outside of basic greetings and thank you.) I looked up a few key phrases before we left just in case, but we made it okay.

At the burek street stand, the woman showed me the price on her calculator with a smile. At the little cafe near our couchsurfing apartment, the proprietor brought out a parade of items from the small kitchen to make sure we knew what we were ordering. It was all delicious. The people were all kind.

There were similarities in the cuisine, but with a different spin. I didn’t try anything I didn’t enjoy.

In the evening, we wandered in one of the large parks before checking out a local band covering 80s music and classic rock at the Tirana Hard Rock, which I have a feeling isn’t affiliated with the American chain.

The next day, we loved the free walking tour, and learning about the history of the former communist nation from our guide, who has lived through the transition. He remembers the first time his mom saw a banana, something they couldn’t import during his isolated childhood years.

That afternoon we struck out to find the gondola, hoping for a view of the city. We thought there was a direct bus to the start, and there might be, but we never found it. Instead we got off, walked for about 30 minutes, periodically redirecting ourselves with signs, which thankfully included a picture, all the while going uphill.

When we finally arrived at the start, we realized the price was double what we had read online, but decided that even though it would blow our budget challenge, we were already committed. (It was about 400 Macedonian denars, or about $8.)

The view of Tirana at sunset was beautiful and at the top, we met the manager of the restaurant and hotel who kindly gave us a tour of the grounds, including a visit to the roof, which is currently under renovations, but had the best view.

We found all the people kind and welcoming, and enjoyed comparing notes on our respective Balkan homes. (We also randomly met a traveler from New Zealand whose two horses starred in Lord of the Rings!) The forecast for our final day was nothing but rain and gloom, so we ended up catching the night bus home, which surprised us by being an hour shorter than our ride there. Balkan neighbor tour complete!

 

Здравейте Bulgaria

I live in the east of Macedonia, only a short distance from the Bulgarian border, so it probably shouldn’t have taken me two years to visit. Oh well. Toa e toa.

I spent a long weekend in Sofia in August, hoping to track down a visa to visit Vietnam after service and also to cross off one more neighbor country from my bucket list. It all started with Pero.

Pero is a guy who lives in my area and drives a van to Sofia almost every day. It’s about 10 euros round-trip, with pick up and drop off in my village, but the trick is that you can’t plan in advance. If you try to call him two days early, he says call back tomorrow. You can’t reserve your seat any earlier than the night before, which luckily after two years here was no problem. Ima vreme (there is time) always.

My friend Susan joined me for the weekend, since she and I are planning some Southeast Asia adventures and needed visas. We managed to find the embassy on foot, which was quite impressive. But then we stood outside waiting for it to open because we didn’t realize there was a time change, which was less impressive.

Spoiler: We didn’t get the visas, but we had a beautiful cultural moment.

I started speaking to the man working there in tentative, slow English, after handing over my American passport. Periodically he turned to a colleague and asked in Vietnamese if she could help bridge the language divide. Slowly, we realized that what I read online was wrong and there was no way to get a visa in 2-3 days. It would take a minimum of two weeks. After a lot of pointing, gesturing, and many hopeful smiles, we decided our quest had failed and I said ‘thank you,’ in Macedonian.

That was the game changer.

The man paused and said wait, you speak Bulgarian? I switched to Macedonian and said not Bulgarian, but the languages are so similar that we had no problem conversing. He then explained what we had been struggling through in English and we laughed over how easy it was to sum up a 20-minute struggle in five with a common language.

So no visa, but no worries. I’ve said it before, but this experience has definitely made me a more patient person. Plus, after leaving the embassy I had a cool, new city to explore!

Sofia is a gem.

We wandered for a while through the city center until rain showers prompted a stop for a long coffee. (Although the stormy skies made for some beautiful photos.) We found the city easy to navigate, and as we discovered, our Macedonian skills translated enough to solve any questions we had.

This language overlap is definitely one of the neat things about traveling in the Balkans. (Assuming you have some general grasp of one of the languages used here.)

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Maybe the coolest part of the trip came on our second day when we participated in a free food tour. Let me repeat: Free. Food. Tour. I don’t know who came up with this idea, but genius. dsc_0234-min

We did a free walking tour in the morning, grabbed coffee, and met in front of a statue of a giant head split by an ax (Art confuses me.) and took off on the greatest tour of all time.

 

Free food, guys. Did I mention that?

We stopped at several restaurants and had samplings of traditional fare, like Bulgaria’s version of ajvar, and whatever the restaurant was known for. It was a great way to get some ideas of where to return for full meals, and a delicious way to experience Sofia.

After a bit more wandering, we met up with our (awesome) couchsurfer and had dinner at a hole in the wall near his apartment, with even more tasty food.

On our third morning, we wandered a little more, coffeed a little more, and set out to find our ride home. After a few hours of what seemed like the long way home, we ended up getting dropped off right in front of my house because of course, the driver knew my host family.

Mirëdita Kosovo!

I realized recently that I hadn’t posted about some weekend trips this summer, so three fun travel posts, coming right up.

First in line, Kosovo.

I visited Macedonia’s northern neighbor in June with my two sitemates, Iris and Rachel. (Anyone in the same region where you live counts as a sitemate.) I can get to either of them in a 10-15 minute walk followed by a 10-15 minute bus ride, so we’re practically neighbors.

Kosovo brought me one passport stamp closer to visiting all of Macedonia’s neighbors during service, and the kombi ride from Skopje to capital city Pristina was shorter than the bus ride from my village to Skopje. (A kombi is what we call oversized vans and mini-buses.)

On the recommendation of fellow PCVs, we stayed at Han Hostel, which was easy to find, in a great location near the center, and offered a slight Peace Corps discount. (Every little bit helps on that Peace Corps budget.)

The weather was crazy hot, which sounds delightful while I can see my breath inside, huddled next to my wood stove in all the layers. It was also during the World Cup, so there were giant screens and stands set up all over the center for anyone in the city to enjoy the matches. It was the first year Albania was playing, which several people told me was quite exciting.

Kosovo has some complicated history, but for our purposes you need to know that the main language is Albanian and most Kosovars are ethnically Albanian. (Also, a word of caution traveling: You can’t enter Serbia from Kosovo. A few fellow PCVs got kicked off the bus at the border and made this discovery. Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s Independence. So like I said, complicated.)

We spent a day taking in the main sites Pristina had to offer, including a building famed for how ugly it is, statues and art meant to be graffitied, and the first Mexican restaurant we’d seen since arriving in Macedonia. (Give me all the guac!) Oh and of course we high-fived the Bill Clinton statue as we passed by.

We tried to track down a falafel restaurant, but it was closed when we were hungry. Alas.

We took our hostel host’s advice and found some great hidden gem restaurants and tried some new flavors of rakija we haven’t sampled in Macedonia. We also ate lots of gelato, because vacation.

We were pretty satisfied with our exploration of Pristina after a full day, so we spent our second day in Prizren, which was  a little less than two hours one way on the bus.

Prizren was cute, but as it was crazy hot, and the middle of Ramadan, there were moments I felt a little out of place in my sweaty tank top. Rachel decided to take a short hike up to a fortress that overlooked the city, but Iris and I succumbed to the weather and went for a shorter walk to a coffee shop along the river. (A choice I stand by. Wading in the river was divine.)

The kombi ride home was probably the most uncomfortable I’ve felt on public transportation in two years. We overfilled the kombi, so we were packed in with people standing in between the seats, sweating all over everyone, kids on laps, and not a whisper of air moving anywhere. At least it was less than three hours, right?

I really enjoyed our quick visit to Kosovo, despite all the sweating, because where I live in Macedonia, I don’t see a lot of the Albanian culture. A weekend was enough, well, except for the gelato. There is never enough gelato.

“I’m their American.”

This has been my Peace Corps mantra for two years, especially on tough days.

We are often reminded by staff that being a Peace Corps Volunteer is a 24-hour job. We are the windows into America for our communities. We are the examples of what an American is like. Our communities are always watching. Our host families are always watching. Our students will notice absolutely everything. (And tell you they noticed, probably after pointing and giggling with the other baby children at their table.)

So on the days when I am just not feeling it, I take a breath and remind myself, “I’m their American.” And I let out whatever emotion is ruling the day in other ways. And that sometimes includes hibernating away from the Macedonian friends and family I love, because sometimes their American just needs a break.

I’m often asked some variation of this question: “What are/is America/Americans like?”

For two years, I have been telling Macedonia that America is a wonderful place. It’s made up of people who can trace roots all over the world. People born in America or who have chosen to make America their home. People come to America with hope. People are free to live the life they choose, worship in the way they choose, love who they love. It’s not perfect, but I’ve always been proud.

And then, well, election night happened.

For all of the things that have happened in America during my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer, the mass shootings, the protests, the police officers who have killed unarmed men and women of color, the police officers who have been killed – for all of the things I haven’t been proud of, I’ve never been embarrassed to say I’m an American.

But I was embarrassed after the election.

I’ve written, deleted, rewritten, and completely started over several times, trying to articulate how I feel about it all.

I won’t go into the numerous reasons why I think the president-elect is the wrong choice for the job, the number of people and groups he has singled out, mocked, or made campaign promises to harm in some way. I won’t go into the numerous hateful acts I’ve read about since the election, committed by people inciting his name. And don’t even get me started on these neo-Nazis pretending that “alt-right” isn’t just another label for a hate group.

In the last few weeks I’ve been asked about how I voted, asked about how America voted, asked about hate crimes and hate speech and more.

I may be embarrassed and disappointed about the election results. I might not have the answer to what happened or what is continuing to happen. I might be angry and scared for a multitude of reasons.

But here in Macedonia, I’m still their American. And that means that I continue to share love and kindness with my friends, family, and community. I continue on in this 24/7 job, and make sure my community knows that this doesn’t define America. We’re better than this. There is a lot of work to do in America, but for now, my job is to be their American. My job is to show my community that love trumps hate.