Chapter 2: The Beautiful Blue Danube

(Hint: If you click on the pictures you can see much more detail.)

Meet the Berkshires–Steve and Eileen and the Ekstroms–Merl and Ireta. Two couples who live in Mt. Pleasant, MI. We are neighbours and enjoy many of the same things. In addition, both Eileen and Ireta are awaiting knee surgery and thus need canes to assist us as we travel around. Merl found a deal for a cruise on the Danube shortly after I came home from my stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer. We decided to book it and before you can blink, it was time to pack and head for Budapest, Hungary. I’ve never been here before so this is a great new adventure for me. Our trip  takes us to Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Germany. The tour company, Uni World, has booked a hotel room for the Ekstroms and Berkshires in Budapest at the Corinthia Hotel for the night before we board the ship. The service is truly impeccable. They sent a driver to pick us up at the airport and a valet met us at the door and took our bags.  The hotel is elegant and magnificent– just the first of many surprises for us. They are truly taking exceptional care of us. While waiting to board our ship, we took a little walk around the area and determined that you can get anything you want in Budapest–even a cardinal tattoo (check it out, Mom!)

Magyar Republic Parliament Building (Hungary)

So the next day we are told to set our bags outside the door to our rooms and they will pick them up and deliver them to our staterooms on board the ship. Wow! That certainly helps the ladies with canes and the husbands who are looking at the luggage and thinking, “How am I going to handle all of that?” Then the tour director walks through the lobby of the hotel and announces that we should board the bus outside the hotel. It is time to get on the ship. When we board, we show our passports and staff takes a picture of us and hands us a room key.  One of the many staff members steps up to  escort us to our stateroom and show us around in there and explain how everything works. At first I didn’t think there was a bathroom but our guide opened one of the mirrored panels and there it was–with so many mirrors that I could see the back of my head when I was doing my hair. We also had switches to turn on a towel warmer and floor warmer. What a deal! We are told there is a light lunch available at the moment and at 3 PM we will have “Tea”. Uh, oh! This could be a very fattening cruise! We have a briefing at 6 PM with the captain, hotel manager and cruise director. We are all requested to attend that. All three of them give us valuable information and tell us what is happening this evening and what we will do the next day. We will have a little talk (port talk) each day at this time to explain the next day’s activities. Ireta and I are quite pleased that they have a group for “gentle walkers” each day. There must be about ten of us on the ship that need something a little slower when we get off the ship. Our first evening will be in Budapest with the ship going down river a bit and changing docking stations. We will pass the parliament building which is gorgeous! On the second day we will get to do a tour of Budapest and do some shopping if we so desire. Now anyone who has been in the Berkshire house at Christmas knows we have Santas and nutcrackers all over the house. So when we see something novel we buy it. And this guy is pretty different from all the others in our collection. Unfortunately it was raining that day and so it was pretty miserable to get out walk around. But while we were out there, we met this lovely woman by the name of Pam who was traveling on her own.  She lives in the UK and had seen this tour advertised on You Tube and decided she wanted to do it. She was a delight and became a regular member of our group. That evening during dinner our cruise began in earnest. Next stop: Slovakia and its capitol city Bratislava.

Slovakia used to be part of Czechoslovakia and as such is new country. We spent the morning there touring the city. The Gentle Walking group was given a little motorised train to go around the city. There were so many twists and turns and uneven pavement that they decided this was the best way for us to see it. There must have been ten churches in this area. All of them beautiful. Many of these churches that we see have been rebuilt because of damage during WW II. We then boarded a bus and went up river a little bit to catch up with our ship. It had gone through the first river lock of the trip. Next stop: Vienna, Austria.

Now, I have been to Vienna (Wien) before and believe that it is the most beautiful city in Europe. It has magnificent buildings, incredible food, beautiful music, dancing horses and so much more. I love Vienna! We will not get to spend much time here but we will see some absolutely marvellous things. But before we get turned loose in Wien we have special concert just for the people on our ship. It is music from Strauss and Mozart. It lasts about an hour and carries you away. We have a delightful sampling of opera music and waltz music with dancers. This is the music that is part of the cultural identity that is uniquely Vienna. We gave them three standing ovations. They began the evening with the overture from the Marriage of Figaro and ended it with the Beautiful Blue Danube (what else?!)

The next morning started with a trip to Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum which has some of the most magnificent pieces of art.There was an exhibit of Rubens paintings but we could not take any pictures of those. 

The museum was actually opened up an hour early for a couple of tour groups so we could beat the general public and be able to see the amazing artwork contained in this museum–especially the Rubens exhibition.

We then headed for city centre and it was amazing I was so excited to be there. Up in front of us was the famous St. Stephens Cathedral. It was very close to this that I had had lunch with my children when I was in Vienna the last time. I also found a little shop that sold Mozartkugeln which is a wonderful chocolate delicacy with marzipan on the inside. They actually had them  in the violin box that I had seen a couple of years before when we held GLOW camp at Wilson School in Tetovo, MK. Unfortunately I was moving around much faster than I should have so that by the time we returned to the ship for lunch I was exhausted and hurting a great deal. It put an end to my wandering around for the day. 

Chapter 1: Cruising the world

Well, not quite. But we are beginning a river cruise in Europe and I have much to report. We actually started in Iceland and that was an amazing adventure. There is so much about Iceland,  we don’t know! We saw the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. They are only about half a mile apart so you could say we were almost on two continents at one time–except our legs aren’t quite that long to span the two plates. There are hot springs all over the place and geysers continually going off. And one of the most amazing waterfalls you have ever seen. Just amazing. Reykjavik is a relatively new city so there aren’t many historical sites to see but oh, the wind. I almost became Mary Poppins and I didn’t even have an umbrella with me. Truly a very rugged beauty. And hot springs that provide hot water for everyone on the island. But Iceland was only an intermediate stop. Our ultimate objective was to meet up with our dear friends and neighbours the Ekstroms in Budapest, Hungary and to get ready to board our beautiful ship the S.S. Maria Theresa so we could float up the Danube to Passau, Germany and then spend a couple of days on our own in Munich (München), Germany. Once we had that all planned and hotel reservations and flight reservations made we were informed by my stamp dealer in Munich we had two holidays in the middle of our visit and pretty much everything is closed up. In Germany, when they have a holiday they really mean a holiday. They all close up and go out strolling through a park or just enjoying life instead of working. Well, we can still go see things even if we can’t get in. There is so much to see. The holidays? 31 October: Reformation Day–exactly 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, changing the face of modern religion and  1 Nov – All Saints Day celebrated in the Catholic States of Germany. And since Munich is in Bavaria and that is a Catholic state, we also had our second holiday in a row.  But never fear we had a great time in spite of these limitations put on us.

So sit back and relax and read about the two ladies with canes and their handsome escorts on a trip up the beautiful Danube on the incredible ship the Maria Theresa–which has more mirrors than you have ever seen. You don’t know if you are coming or going!

Maria Theresa

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Now what?

Service is over and I’m in the process of ticking off medical appointments–dentist, orthopedist, chiropractor, dermatologist and my GP. Much to my surprise I first had to find a new GP as the one I saw prior to service has, unbeknownst to me, apparently left town. The doctor she was sharing office space with is accepting new patients for the year 2019! Good heavens! I could die by then.  I was fortunate to find a new, young, highly capable doctor who is not long out of medical school and whom I think will not remain in Mt. Pleasant very long. Seems they long for the big city.

In the meantime, I need to find things to do while waiting to complete all of these appointments. My husband complains that since I’ve been home, he doesn’t get to do the laundry or to cook. Ummmm–what am I supposed to do? Sit around and eat bonbons? Well, my mother really wants me to come visit as do my sisters so I’ll go to California and visit them. Besides, it is warmer there!

So now I am in Galt, CA. Mom has developed some wonderful friendships  with a number of the women that belong to the Galt Senior Club. Because I qualify age wise (you must be at least 55) I join the club. I figure I will return to Galt a couple of times in the coming year so it is worth paying dues and becoming a member so that I can be part of the fun. I’ve met some of them before and agree to go to the club meetings with her where they play Bingo. But wait! They also play Hand and Foot and Bunco. These ladies have so much fun when they do this. One of them even gets the giggles like I do. If you’ve ever seen me laugh, you will know that I almost roll on the floor with laughter. So obviously, they play these games as purely fun, social activities and have fun talking about anything and everything. Certainly a wonderful break from discussing politics!

Bingo is pretty easy except when they say “Stella’s Bingo” or “Drunken Sailor (or elves or Santa or leprechaun)” Those need to be explained to me. I’m used to playing it as as horizontal or vertical game or a black out. They have prizes like garbanzo beans, Kleenex, toilet paper etc. (As a nonprofit, they cannot legally play for monetary prizes) They play this twice a week. It isn’t the most intellectually stimulating thing I have ever done, but it is fun and passes the time.

I’ve played Bunco with them before and with a quick refresher I am able to remember how to play it. Since one of the regular players is missing, I can fill in for her. This is basically a dice game that is fast moving and has you getting up and moving around. Moving around really is appreciated as we all seem to get a bit stiff if we sit for too long. I ended up being the big winner by losing the most hands and getting the most “Buncos” (three of a kind of the number we are rolling for at that moment). Mom won for winning the most hands. The Swinehart women were the Bunco champions of the week!

But Hand and Foot? No clue. It’s kind of like Canasta my mother tells me. That doesn’t help me one bit but I’m a quick study, I can learn to play it. We arrive at the home of the host where we are going to play Hand and Foot and all of the women have card shufflers. (Should I have bought one to play?)

Card Shuffler and cards

This game is played with a minimum of six decks of cards including the Jokers and so they need a way to shuffle the cards. One person starts shuffling and then they pass the cards around so that two or three people are shuffling at a time. The fact that my mother has her very own card shuffler just amazes me. The only card game I have ever seen her play was Pinochle. Now she is carrying her own shuffler and multiple decks of cards around in her car just in case she finds a card game. Has she turned into a card shark? (or is that a card sharkette?) Obviously she has fun and it makes her happy to be around her friends, so I don’t need to worry about checking into Gamblers Anonymous.

The tote bag with cards and shuffler kept in her car.

I learn the game fairly quickly and find that I enjoy it. Then they tell me that they don’t really play by the official rules. They have made a few changes to suit their desires. So now, if I want to go home and find a group of ladies that want to play with me, I’ll have to study the rules as written by Hoyle or whoever wrote them. But I bet it won’t be as much fun as I had with Mom’s group of friends.

I do sincerely appreciate the fact they let me play with them. They are kind, witty, intelligent women who just want to have fun, talk to each other and laugh a lot. They shared that with me and for that I am eternally grateful.

 

R P C V

It’s official. I’m an RPCV–Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. But actually it just feels like I’m playing hooky. Next week I’ll have to get on a plane and go back to work. Oh, but wait, I don’t have to do that because I’m done. I’ve performed my service to my country. I’ve been checked out, debriefed, had the description of my service written, received my last injections and been thanked by the Peace Corps staff for my service. I’ve also had to say goodbye to my family and my students. That was the most difficult part of the whole process. It would be fair to say that I shed quite a few tears.

But let’s back up and take a look at my last couple of months of service. I know that 9.11 is a big deal in the states but it turned out to be a pretty big deal for us in Macedonia. I was sitting at my desk around 0700 when it began to shake. At first I thought it was just one of those big trucks that rumble through the neighborhood on a daily basis. But this must be a really long truck or an earthquake. Turns out it was the latter of the two. I had a couple of people message me right away wanting to know if we had had an earthquake. Yes, we did. It was at that point that I realized that my duties as a warden were to check on all my people. Our Safety and Security manager does not live in or near Skopje and thus might not know we had an earthquake. I checked on everyone and they were all fine. I reported in to the SSM and he then sent out a security check country wide. Most had slept through it–I know my family did. But then about 1300 we had another shaker and this one was much more significant–a 5.3 on the Richter Scale. The guys grabbed the babies and everyone else headed out the front door to the courtyard. I tried to tell them that door frames are safe places to be but no one believed me. We then proceeded to have after shocks all afternoon. I believe we had over a dozen of them.

The next day was a school day and many parents kept their children home because of the earthquake activity. I had one little girl sit in class crying.

“Amra, what is wrong?” I asked.

“Unë jam i frikësuar nga tërmeti.” (I am afraid of the earthquake) I just had to go give her a hug and reassure her that we were safe. We did a little earthquake drill and got under our desks. We then proceeded on with the lesson and she was fine.

We were very excited at the end of the last school year to get central heat installed. As we headed into October it began to get quite cold and the oil had not been delivered and apparently the work wasn’t quite complete. But what’s the hurry? The heating season doesn’t start until 15 October. Temperature is not the guiding factor. No one was in a hurry to do anything. Има време. (Eema vreme–there is time. This is truly a Macedonian philosophy) As a result, we would have seriously shortened days. By the time Jeta and I were due to arrive at school they were sending students home. A couple of days it was so cold that Haxhbi told me to stay home. I was suffering from bronchitis and didn’t need to get any sicker.

The end of October came much too quickly. Susie and I had rented an apartment in Skopje for our out processing. It was scheduled for three days 31 Oct – 2 Nov. My first fight was whether or not I was eligible for per diem. I was not eligible for the stipend that is paid for Skopje area volunteers and they were not eligible for per diem. However, all of a sudden they decided I was a Skopje area volunteer and wouldn’t get per diem. When I called them on it, I indicated that if I was a Skopje area volunteer then I was due some serious back pay. Oops! Yes, Eileen, you are eligible for per diem. Since I had managed to get my COS physical at the end of September, all I needed to do with the medical staff was get my flu shot and TB test. But I had a brief chat about them about what I was feeling. My stomach had that same nervous feeling it had when I was getting ready to leave for my service. Dr. Mimi said that most volunteers do get that feeling but for some reason no one really talks about it. Then I had to go on a wild goose chase to get signatures from various people and negotiate when I would return my heater. I was not willing to do without it for two days let alone two weeks. I got my travel pay and money to pay for my extra bag. Only problem was they gave it to me in US dollars and Austrian air does not accept dollars–only Euros or credit cards. Once I had had my exit interviews and obtained most of my signatures, I was told come back the day before I left and sign out. When I did that I was told, “Congratulations. You are now an RPCV.” (never a former PCV)

And then at 0430 on the 18th of November I boarded a plane to Vienna. I had a lovely interlude in Vienna. I was able to eat a croissant without cheese in it, Then I boarded another flight to Chicago–11 hours!  Fortunately the plane was not packed and they fed us reasonably well and kept us hydrated. Customs and immigration in Chicago were a breeze but then I was subjected to the hordes of people. It was a little overwhelming. I sort of felt like little girl lost. My last flight was barely an hour long but by the time I arrived, I was exhausted. I could not have told you where I was or even what I was supposed do. I really had problems figuring out what was expected of me. I didn’t want to be touched or fussed over. Just let me go into my corner and work on figuring out where I am and what the hell I’m supposed to do.

It’s getting better but it will never be the same. Macedonia changed me in ways that I can’t really explain. I love being home and having my house and kitchen and a clothes dryer and dishwasher. But the pace of things seems crazy. I miss my family even though they at times drove me crazy. They are the dearest and kindest people. I find that I am frightened very easily. Being alone in the house at night scares me a little bit and I have been alone here the last two nights. Portion sizes for meals are huge–nothing compared to what I ate there. However, there is no longer bread for lunch and beans for dinners so that is good!

Life is truly good and I am privileged to have served my country in such a capacity. I have fulfilled a long held dream and feel that I am a better person for it. Now if I can just survive a country that has been transformed by an election that made no sense.

 

Reflections

So much stuff going through my head that it isn’t funny. If this post seems disjointed it is because my brain feels that way. What have I accomplished? Did I accomplish anything? How do I feel about my family and work situation? What frustrated me the most? Any a-ha moments? Any regrets? Truly I don’t know where to begin. Perhaps with this little anecdote from the other day at school. As I was talking to Klara, the Health and PE teacher who speaks very little Shqip, one of the students came into the teachers’ room and wanted to know where teacher Jeta was. I didn’t know but Klara knew: Со класа осум (With class 8) she responded in Macedonian.  So the young man begins counting on his fingers: еден, два….. I looked at him and said: Tetë (eight in Shqip). He looked at me astounded and with a new found respect. Teacher Eileen knows both Macedonian AND Shqip! He was absolutely stunned. Klara and I just laughed. I guess it could be called an A-ha moment. I’ve learned a lot here and I have a much greater comfort zone with my family and colleagues than I did a year ago. I primarily communicate in Shqip with my family and we have very few misunderstandings. My colleagues and I use a good combination of both as they also want to know some Anglisht. Many of them understand the language but hesitate to speak it–much like I initially was. But one of the things this demonstrated to me also was how thoroughly Albanian everyone is out here. Very little Macedonian is spoken. And that seems poetic to me as Albania was where I initially wanted to go when I started applying for the Peace Corps. So I have ended up where I wanted to go, sort of. No Adriatic Sea close by, but still a very Albanian culture.

Why, you might ask is there a large ethnic majority of Albanians living in the western part of Macedonia and so insistent that they are not Macedonian (although legally they are)? They fought for the right to have their own schools providing instruction in Shqip, they are guaranteed about 30% of the legislative seats and they are recognized as an ethnic group living in the country. As I was reading about the canonization of Mother Teresa, I learned Enver Hoxha had declared Albania an atheist state in 1967 and destroyed vestments and churches and mosques. If people wanted to be observant in their faith, they needed to move either to Kosovo or Macedonia. At least that is how I perceive it. Mother (now saint) Teresa was born in Skopje and was an ethnic Albanian from Kosovo. So this past weekend has been one of great importance to those people who are practicing Christians.

Have I made an impact? Well, we now eat Italian style (sort of) lasagne. Elsa can say the alphabet, count to ten and knows her colors. She doesn’t recognize the letters but she can say them. Of course, she doesn’t know the Shqip letters either. She is only three years old so I guess I shouldn’t expect too much. My students have started greeting me more often and try speaking to me in English. Maybe one or two of them will pursue the language a little further. But with no place to practice the language, I don’t have incredibly high hopes for them. Perhaps I can arrange an English Club via Skype. But I am incredibly proud of them. They teach me Shqip in return for my efforts in English

Culture has been a bit difficult to understand and deal with. Let’s take weddings: They last seven days! Different things on different days–hen party, bridal shower, bride being taken from her family etc. I finally saw “the wedding ceremony.” Everyone had arrived and the music finally stopped! (Mashallah!) A red carpet was laid and in walked the bridal couple. They sat down at a table in the middle of the dance floor and a man came up to them, read some stuff, they responded, and then they signed papers. After that was done, the papers were given to the bride and she waved them triumphantly in the air. Then it was time for more music and for everyone and their brother to get a picture with the bridal couple. The bride’s dress was huge and the make-up was beyond belief but that is the way it is done here.

Imran, me, bride, groom and Nazifete

The music was so loud that I finally had to leave the building and sit outside. It physically hurt my ears. I now hate clarinets with a passion and to think that at one time I was going to be a female Benny Goodman! I swear if I ever go to another wedding, I will find ear plugs to take with me. They should be issued when you arrive at the wedding.

Daily life has been a bit of a hassle. Basically I have no privacy. Nazifete taps on the door and just walks in. Many times it is just to come look out the window. I keep the door locked much of the time. However, when I have been coming in and out I forget to do it. When I walk in the house with a shopping bag, she immediately wants to know what is in the bag. If I just go straight to my room, she follows me to find out. “How much?” I often tell her that it is none of her business but still she persists. Then there is the expectation  I share everything with them. I have had to emphasize that my yogurt is mine. My mirror is mine. My hair dryer is mine. My sewing kit is mine. This afternoon she walked in with a burned out lightbulb and wanted to know if I had any more. NO! Yesterday she informed me that the Raid Plug in  I gave them for use downstairs was empty. I should get some refills. I wonder how they will get along once I leave and they no longer have the income I give them to rely on. But on the other side, they watch out for me; they make sure I’m warm when it is cold; there is always plenty of hot water (even if I have to go outside and turn the water on to increase the water pressure enough to have a shower); they do my laundry. As an introvert I cherish my alone time. It is more valuable than gold. I just haven’t quite figured out how to explain that. To Albanians, family is the most important thing. Including me, there are nine people in this house but quite often we have overnight guests. It is never seen as an inconvenience. There is always plenty of food for them and a number of places for them to sleep (there are three living rooms with couches that make into beds). And every person who stays over treats me as if I’m one of the family. So daily life is both a challenge and a blessing.

Health wise, Macedonia has not been kind to me. Broken ankles, knees needing replaced, shoulders being damaged, stomach ulcers and unexplained bruising on various parts of my body. Riding busses has had a physical impact on my body and often I come home feeling like I have been in the boxing ring. You get tossed around like a rag doll on those really old busses. I truly hate those busses and if I can get a ride, I will. The bus drivers in our area drive like they are stunt drivers and run more red lights than I like to count. I truly worry that I am going to be in an accident while riding one the busses.

Has it been worth it? I think it has. I have had the opportunity to experience another culture up close and personal. I have learned a great deal about Islam and now have a great deal of respect for it and those who practice it. I have met people whom I dearly love and will never ever forget. And I do think that somewhere down the road, someone will say, “You remember teacher Eileen? She really encouraged me to ………..”

But it’s not over yet. So hang in there for a bit longer, folks!

COS…It’s time

COS – Close of Service. We had our COS conference this past week and it evoked many memories and caused a lot of tears. We are a very big happy family when we get together and this was probably the last time we would all be together. We have been told that Corey, our original Country Director wants to come back and visit with us before we all go home. We are truly looking forward to that. It will, of course, mean that many more tears. But they will be tears of love and probably one more opportunity to be with our PC MAK 19 family one more time.

Before the conference can begin, we must travel from  all over the country to arrive at our destination–Aurora Resort and Spa in Berovo–almost on the Bulgarian Border.

View from our room
View from our room

It is very isolated but absolutely gorgeous as these shots show.

Swimming Pool view
Swimming Pool view

In order to get here, I had to catch the 0600 bus out of the village which just so happened to have nothing but male passengers–none of whom was willing to give up a seat for the crazy American. I traveled to the main bus terminal and went in to get my ticket for Berovo: Departure time 0730. We need to arrive for lunch which is 1230 -1400 and it is at least a four hour bus ride. Within minutes of my arrival, six more of my fellow volunteers arrive. Good! I’ll have plenty of company on the trip. So we board and start down the road  for our four hour bus ride. First stop Veles. There we pick up two more volunteers. Now we head to Kochani anticipating about half a dozen more volunteers. We pulled in next to a  Combie and saw the other volunteers pulling out of the station. We waved frantically and placed a few inter-vehicle phone calls hoping we would beat them to Berovo. Sadly, it was not to be. About five miles out of Kochani, our bus made a very funny noise and the driver pulled over to the side of the road. He did an examination, moved the bus about 100 metres and parked it. We were then all told to get off the bus. Fortunately it was a nice shady spot next to the river so it  wasn’t a bad place to  be stranded if you had to be stranded. Apparently the drive belt went kaput! So now what? Well, first off, we better call PC and let them know the situation. The bus driver informed us that there would be another bus for us in about an hour. So what do you do when you are stranded on the side of the road in Macedonia? You drink! Bus BreakdownGoce has always told us to travel prepared and we were. I had chocolate and the corkscrew, Bill had the wine and Sydney had the camera to document our level of preparedness. Stacie and Bonnie had  their swimsuits handy so they quickly changed into them and went for a dip in the river. Peace Corps volunteers are always ready to make the best of a  difficult situation. And sure enough at the one hour mark here came another bus so we all climbed on and headed to Berovo. In the mean time, we have picked up two more volunteers who were on our rescue bus and we then had to pick up Jared and Andrea in Delchevo. We hit Berevo and headed straight for the store to replenish our wine  and chocolate supply. And of course,  there were no taxis available at the moment so by the time we got to the resort it was 1400 and we still had to eat–which we did! All of us were starving!

As the first couple of hours of the conference progressed, it became evident to all of us that we would not be walking out of the conference with information on when we would be coming home. As you can imagine, people were not pleased with that fact. We have a choice when we return from service. We can either have Peace Corps purchase our ticket, give us cash for extra bags, taxi and food and plan our itinerary or take a cash in lieu payment of $1300 and you become responsible  for planning your own itinerary and covering any extra costs that may arise–like taxi, extra bags, meals. I have opted to let PC plan my itinerary because I have to fly into a rinky dinky airport on the end of my trip. I could probably get a flight to Istanbul then to Chicago then to MBS, however, we have been advised to not transit through Istanbul. And while I will no longer be a PCV but rather an RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer–never a former PCV), I will still heed the advice of my safety and security manager and the State Department. However, the country director relented and told us that all would be separated by the 19th of November so that we could avoid Thanksgiving travel. So people who have opted for the cash are frantically trying to book their flights now. I will simply wait for PC to tell me where and when to be. Much less stress that way.

Then we found out about all the work we have to do before we can leave–an official Description of Service(written in third person) and Site evaluation(written in first person). These need to be done by 15 September. We also need to have a physical, get our medical referrals, get our flue shots, turn in all of our Peace Corps issued equipment –flashlight, radio, smoke detector, fire extinguisher, medical kit. We have a lot to do to get out of here while still working at our sites.

Being a PCV also gives you two years of non-competitive eligibility in Civil Service. Additionally your time in service counts towards career status with the federal government. So with my prior work for the feds, I should be at about 7 years now. However, the most I might do when I return is be a Wal Mart Greeter or a Barrista at a coffee shop. Maybe I could be a sommelier! We did have a mini career fair concerning jobs in Peace Corps, Foreign Service, Civil Service and international development. Not interested at the moment. Neither was Susie so we took a nap during that session.

IMG_0022
The Dobroshte Gang–dual language group

All in all it was a wonderful conference with lots of tears. I should have more info on my return to the states fairly soon and will let the world know when I’m coming back. Some numbers from our course: We started with 44 volunteers and we are finishing with 33 a 25% drop out rate. Our dual language group started out with 9, we finished with 8, an 11% drop out rate. We had the best retention rate of all four groups. We had one wedding occur during our time in service. Four of the people who left service left for medical reasons. Ten members of the group have extended their tours of duty. All in all an incredibly awesome group.

However, there is still plenty to do and experience before I say Ditën e mirë and I’m sure there are still plenty of tears to be shed.

 

Camp Time

Suitcase all packed. Four bags of marshmallows, 150 safety pins, birthday crown, Nescafe’s, name tags, yarn, crayons, pens, pencils and oh, yes–some clothes. I have a very heavy suitcase and I have to navigate getting it out of the house and to the bus stop and then on the bus tomorrow morning at 0600! Then when I get to Skopje I will get my ticket to Krushevo and then go sit in the little town until 17.30 and wait for our NGO partner to show up. They have wonderful little restaurants and a place to drink coffee or wine and just enjoy watching life go by or reading. And the reason I am leaving so early is that if I take the next bus to Krushevo it doesn’t arrive until 16.30 and is often late so there is a chance that I will miss the final leg of my trip if my bus is late and then have to take a taxi there.

Once our NGO partner arrives, we will load up bags and send them up to camp–yes, up. This camp is located on the side of a mountain so we have about a half hour hike  up a road of switchbacks to even get to the camp. For fairly obvious reasons, I’m a bit nervous about this hike with my knee being what it is and the fact that I am still on meds for my ulcer which increase the urgency for finding a bathroom.

Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World)  will host 80 of the best and brightest from all over Macedonia and they will receive education in things like public speaking, democracy, team building, leadership, and oh yes–sex ed. We bill sex-ed ad “Women’s Health” which is what it is. Fortunately we have an excellent provider of professionals delivering this information and not a PCV. This is the first year we are also providing an out door component . Girls will get to sleep out one night and make foil dinners and s’mores (the reason for marshmallows which are non-existent in MK) They will do  some star gazing, learn to pitch a tent and build a campfire. Our NGO partner seems to think we need a male to help us do this. Little does he know the wealth of experience we bring. I’m a BSA Silver Beaver and Brotherhood member of the Order of the Arrow, Gwen is a gold star holder from Girl Scouts, Stacie has worked at the YMCA of the Rockies for the last five years. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. We will show him what women can do! I think he may be surprised.

But now I have to finish my packing and get someone to take my suitcase downstairs so I don’t have to navigate that. The nice part is that my suitcase will be half empty when I come home in ten days. I like that!

So…..kids.

From my experience, young children in this country are incredibly spoiled. When I was in training I would go to a friend’s house and when her little boy wanted her attention he would slap her until  he got it. I was horrified! She did not correct him or do anything to make him stop.

There is 3 1/2 year old little girl in this house and for my first year she was mostly sweet and loving. She has turned into a demon. One day recently, she stood at the top of the steps and called my name. When I responded she said “fuck you”. I was shocked. And she said it with the malice that that particular phrase is usually uttered in the states–which had me in tears. No one said a word. I talked to Faton, her father, and he was pretty shocked. Then she started giving the finger to everyone. When she does this to me, I grab her hand when I can catch her and look her square in the eyes and tell her to never do that again. Her response? She starts shrieking. You would think I beat her or something. Or she will get mad at me because I talked to her little brother (he’s 4 months old). She will try to strike me to make me get away or she runs and slams a door for effect or she spits at me. Today at lunch she grabbed a loaf of bread that had just been purchased and took a bite out of the center of it and walked around the room with it hanging from her mouth looking at everyone, hoping for a reaction. I refused to rise to the bait and just ignored her. Finally her mother said something and took the loaf of bread away from her. She began her incessant shrieking again and grandma gave the loaf of bread back to her. Then as we were eating, she started calling me names and grandma and a cousin just laugh. After lunch, I stopped to talk to the baby as he was fussing. For some reason he gets really calm and happy when I am there. He dropped his pacifier so I picked it up and handed it to his mother. Elsa was furious so Sevime (mother) threw it and told her to pick it up. She picked it up, threw it across the room and then went into the other room and slammed the door. Additionally, when they are watching TV, she takes the remote and will  adjust the volume up or down, change the channel or turn the TV off. Quite often, no one says a word and lets her control it. If someone takes the remote from her–she shrieks. How do you deal with that behaviour? I’m so frustrated. I just stay in my room or go  into town to  avoid having to deal with this child.

Parents don’t seem to discipline these children. And yet by the time they get to school they seem to be reasonably well behaved and are the most loving kids you have ever seen. When I arrive or leave school, I am mobbed with kids wanting to touch me and say  goodbye or hello. There have  been times that they almost knock me over when they run to hug me. I’m literally surrounded. Even the older ones come  running up to me with a  hug and a kiss–boys included. So I don’t know when this transition occurs but I can’t handle too much more of this. And perhaps the two cases I have cited are not typical of all the children. I do see lots of  really small ones out playing or going to the store for Mom  and they don’t display any of these aberrant behaviours. But in this house, all Elsa has to do is shriek and she is rewarded with whatever she wants and let’s not worry about any one but  her. It has really worn on my nerves and really made me think seriously about cutting my service short. If the meds I am on right now don’t work and they suggest a med sep, I will take it! It has become that intolerable.

Doctors

I don’t like doctors. I generally don’t have a need for them and if I see a doctor more than once in a year, it is pretty remarkable. Other than a couple of little episodes with reproductive organs and malfunctioning kidneys, I’m pretty doggone healthy. That being said, I have seen an awful lot of my Doctor here in MK. Life has not been kind to me.  A knee that needs replaced, a damaged shoulder, a broken ankle and now……..an ulcer! Apparently I am a victim of the H. Pylori bacteria–basically acquired through the consumption of contaminated food or water. So now I have to take two antibiotics and some kind of pump inhibitor for two weeks. If that doesn’t work, I may have to have another regimen of antibiotics.

Add to my health problems a little girl who demonstrates characteristics of being bi-polar. One minute she adores me and can’t leave me alone. The next she is flipping me off, spitting at me and slamming doors in my face. And the family’s reaction? “Elsa, no!” There is no penalty for her bad behaviour. I bought a new fan for the family today and as soon as we had it assembled, she started pushing all the buttons and when she was told to stop, she started screaming. Target of her anger? Me! I have come very close to ET’ing this week. (ET=Early termination). I’m so close but I don’t know how much more of this I can take!

Camp starts next week and I’m really looking forward to it. We will be in Krusevo which is in the mountains to the south of us. There is a campsite called Shula Mina that the boys have used for years and now the girls will get to experience it and the great outdoors. It is also much cooler there so should not be as bad as last year. We all thought we were going to collapse of heat exhaustion last year. I just know that I don’t plan to spend a night at “rough camp”. I’m staying in my cabin! The only animals in the area are dogs and goats so no fears from raccoons or bears or wolves but I prefer the comfort of a bed!

Our weather has been blistering hot! Supposed to cool down for the weekend but we shall see. Think I have everything I need for camp–including four bags of marshmallows for s’mores. Now I just have to pack and figure out which bus I will take to get down there.

 

United Kingdom

Where to begin? I said to the hubs, since you are doing a course in Wales, why don’t we do the UK for vacation. He thought it was a smashing idea. The caveat was that he must plan this trip. My only obligation was to get to London on a specific day. Since I had never been to the UK, I had a laundry list of things that would be nice to see but I knew that in reality it would only be a couple of those things. Good old hubs actually tried to get most of those things in and as a result we spent a lot of time traveling from place to place. It almost felt like a Griswold vacation (European Vacation for those of you not initiated to Chevy Chase humour).

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Church of the Immaculate Conception–my source.
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Castlecomer
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Rothe House in Kilkenny- the repository of records

The day we arrived, we climbed on another flight and flew to Belfast and began our Irish adventure from there. It was a lovely starting point. Since much of my family is from Ireland, I decided to see exactly where they were from. I checked my Ancestry records and found a name and place: Castlecomer, County Kilkenny in the Republic of Ireland. I hit a little bit of pay dirt when I talked to the parish secretary and she showed me that the family had indeed been there but that the physical records had been moved to Kilkenny. Well, it wasn’t on the agenda but what the heck! So glad we went there. Beautiful medieval city. Unfortunately the person  I needed to see was out for the day so I couldn’t talk with her but I did get her email. I absolutely loved that town. I will go back.  We headed to Galway that evening and had a wonderful dinner. Galway is on a bay and quite cold and windy so it necessitated a stop at a woolen shop to get a shawl to keep me warm.I had just left behind very hot temperatures and didn’t think to pack anything warm.  The shawl is so beautiful.  I had many, many compliments on it. I can’t wait until the weather turns cool again so I can wear it some more. Next day was the cliffs of Moher. SPECTACULAR!! There is a song that  I especially love that was all that went through my head while I was there. Take four minutes and listen to Song for Ireland. Oh, my gosh. I have never seen anything so beautiful in my life.

The Cliffs of Moher
The Cliffs of Moher

IMG_1663If you have seen pictures of it, they can’t begin to do it justice. However, it was cold there  AND windy. Now I needed a hat to hold my hair in place in addition to my shawl. Fortunately there was a place close at hand that took  care of that. The countryside was amazing. Now it was time to move  on  to Derry where supposedly much of the Foyle family came from. Sure enough, I saw Foyle on all kinds of things there. It was a lovely town and was a town encircled by a very large wall  on which you could walk around the city. This was the site of many of the battles between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. From there we headed back to Belfast and got my glimpse of Loch Foyle. Hop on a plane and back to London via Heathrow.

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Anne Hathawy’s cottage.

We had been invited to stay with the children of a church friend which made getting around and parking easy. However, we didn’t go to their house until we ticked off a few spots: Stratford upon Avon and Stonehenge.We would use Doug and Terry’s home as our base for exploring London. There house was five minutes from the train station which was  quite convenient. But first Stonehenge. Oh, my gosh, it  comes upon you so suddenly. There it is just sitting in the middle of Salisbury Plain. We purposely planned to miss it on the solstice.  I am not fond of huge crowds. Sometimes I think I’m agoraphobic. I can’t handle people breathing down my neck and pushing me along. When we got to Stonehenge we had lots of wide open space and I enjoyed it immensely.

Stonehenge
Stonehenge

That was also the day of the Brexit vote.

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Westminster Abbey
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The London Eye

So the plan for the next day was to go into London. My first real site is the London Eye and then Big Ben and Parliament. As you can imagine since the results of the poll had been announced, people were talking about nothing but Brexit: It was bad; it was good. I’ve read a lot about it since then and I actually think they will revote and decide to stay. Saw a statement today that said England had finally surrendered Europe to the Germans. Thought that was kind of funny. But on this particular day, there were lots of people–tourists and protestors. Places and streets were packed. It took us  almost two hours to  get to London Bridge and the Tower of London from Parliament. It was ridiculous. I had a very hard time with the crowds. As a result, I didn’t enjoy London as much as I might have if I had gone in the middle of winter and without the benefit of a political crisis. Westminster Abbey was absolutely the worst.  I had to escape and had guides yelling at me that I was going the wrong way. Nope–not listening (always the rebel)! I have to get out of here NOW! St. Paul’s church by Christopher Wren, the site of Charlie and Di’s wedding is beautiful and didn’t have nearly the number of people that Westminster had. Changing of the guard was a nothing event. You can’t really get close enough to watch it. Saw lots of red coats on horses, playing instruments and marching around but no actual changing of the guard. But there was also a Pride Celebration festival going on while we were there and that made getting at the many of the places and museums very hard. We got to Trafalgar Square but it was packed with people attired in unusual outfits waving the rainbow flag. IMG_1720And they wore those outfits proudly as you can see and were more than happy to let people take pictures.  Covent Garden was wonderful. We sat there for a while, drank wine and watched some very entertaining musicians while a cloudburst passed overhead.

Now Scotland. I’ve heard people say that they have felt like they found their spirit home when they went to a place they have never been before.  I felt that in Scotland.  First we were in Edinburgh and you can see the castle up on the hill and it is magnificent. If you have read very much about Mary, Queen of Scots, you will recognize it from its placement on the escarpment above the city. And of course,  the mother church of the Presbyterians, St. Giles, is in Edinburgh also. Perhaps the most  beautiful church I have ever seen. Steven thought the inside would be boring, but it was as beautiful on the inside as it was outside. Absolutely amazing. And bagpipe players everywhere. IMG_1747 (Click for a 15 second clip of a piper)

Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle
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St. Giles

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hard to see but it is there–National Wallace Monument.
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That is the date of his victory at Bannockburn.
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The Brrrrrrrrruce!

And now for the crown jewel in my vacation: Stirling Castle! Those of you who know me well, know that I love the movie Braveheart. I workout to it, –usually every other month. You also might remember that my son Josh channeled Robert the Bruce for his sophomore (?) year English Class in a Meeting of the Minds production. So for me this was the ultimate historic site to visit. They have spent millions of pounds restoring it. It had been turned over to the military for many years but in 1964 they moved out and and the crown ordered a restoration of this magnificent edifice perched atop an extinct volcano. It is mostly done. You can see Bannockburn and Falkirk and Stirling Bridge from the castle. I could almost hear the echoes of the battles fought there. It was pretty amazing to me–I even bought the guide book which I almost never do. I could have stayed longer but we were on our way to Inverness. But before we headed out, I wanted to know, what that thing was on the hill off in the distance. Oh, that! It is the National Wallace Monument. Wow!

So northward we go in search of Nessie. Didn’t find him/her but oh, the drive through the highlands was like coming home again for the first time. I don’t know when I have felt so at peace. It was beautiful, serene, wild. It must be experienced to be believed. You see my maternal great grandfather was a Ross but he was Scotch Irish which means the family emigrated from the Highlands probably in the 1500’s or 1600’s and headed to Ireland and then America sometime before the American Revolution. But my soul was truly at peace there.

The next day was the day from Hades. Drive from Inverness to London in the driving rain with construction and someone who is not a super expert at driving on the other side of the road. “Steven, you are over the line. Over the line. Over the line.” In fairness, the lanes were extra narrow but I was just a bit nervous. A couple of times I could have reached out my window and touched the  vehicles in the next lane. My anxiety was relieved when we hit London. My flight was early the next morning–I wanted to be back in time for the annual 4th celebration hosted by the ambassador for all Americans and the end of Ramazan celebrations. While it was a wonderful trip, there was way too much on the agenda. If I go there again, I will skip London and environs and focus on the more rural parts of the UK. I would love to spend a couple of weeks researching my family in Ireland and then just veg out in the Highlands.