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.

That COS feeling

We had our Close of Service conference in August, but it felt weird to write about it then.

Sure we got our “We did it!” certificates and talked about the fact that we need to start paying for health insurance again, but it still felt like the actual close of service was still a while off.

But now, some volunteers have ten days or so before they depart Macedonia with one-way tickets. Now, whenever I see a friend, we ask, “Will I see you again? Do we need to say goodbye now?” SO WEIRD!

Not much to report on COS itself. We found out they had changed the departure system, so instead of volunteers trickling out over the course of a month, there will be a mass exodus on our official COS date of Nov. 19. (Unless you get special approval because of a job, life, something else important.) We talked a lot about working in international relations. (Too much in my opinion, but they fed us well and kept us caffeinated, so balance.) We talked about what we’d miss in MK. What phrases will be hard to stop using. What mannerisms we’ve adopted. We gave out superlatives. (I got most likely to bring you baked goods and best hugger. A fair legacy, I think.)

It was two days at a beautiful hotel in Berovo, but it was two days that felt pretty rushed. (Perhaps a subtle hint at what returning to America will be life?)

Then right after COS, I kind of fell into a funk. This has happened periodically throughout service. (And is so normal that Peace Corps hands out a chart of the totally normal emotional roller coaster and reasons why we go through loops.) Sometimes it’s with reason and sometimes it’s been just out of nowhere. This time, it felt out of nowhere. (I think I burned my emotional chart in my woodstove last winter, so I can’t be sure.)

I was excited to start my final semester. Stepping back from my secondary projects and the committees I’ve been a part of meant more free time and time to spend enjoying my village, friends, and family. My language is as good as it will ever be. (They gave me a certificate at COS to prove it.) I’m looking forward to some travel after service. Things are good, right?

And then I started talking to some friends, who said they had been inexplicably feeling the same way. And then I figured it out. (Technically, my friend Steph made the discovery.Thanks Steph!) For years now, Peace Corps has been the domineering focus of my life.

From thinking about applying to applying. (Twice, because my application got erased during the government shutdown. #thanksObama.) From interviewing to getting accepted. (Oh crap! This is really happening!) Putting in notice at my job, packing up my apartment, moving my life into boxes in my mom’s attic. Then the farewell tour, with lots of dinners and drinks and hugs and promises to try to stay in touch more than we knew we would. (I’m really going! It’s happening!) And then we got here and geez, I don’t even remember the first week. My brain was so tired every night during pre-service training, but we were working towards the next step: swearing in as Volunteers.

And now I’ve been a volunteer for two years, and in about three months, I’ll get a new title: Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.

But the next step for most of us won’t be Peace Corps, so I guess that’s been weird. This fixation for years of my life will no longer rank on my priority list. And after talking about it for most of a four-hour bus ride with my friend Steph, I felt pretty good about it. It still feels weird, as any change does, but it just means on to the next adventure. And that’s pretty cool.

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MAK19 trainees, September 2014

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MAK19 volunteers, August, 2016