Is this what old is all about?

On 28 November 2014 I was sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). On 29 November 2014 I was to gather up all of my belongings and move from my training community, Dobroshtë, to my permanent site,  Arnaqi. The Peace Corps does not move us; we have to figure out how to get our belongings and ourselves from Point A to Point B.  My new site mate, Beverly, had indicated that she would send someone to pick up the bulk of my possessions a couple of days before moving but that I would have to handle the balance of it on my own as she would be in Bitola celebrating Thanksgiving with other PCV’s. I can handle that. I kept a couple of outfits, toiletries, my technology pack, and my dictionary. I have shoulder bags that will handle all of this stuff. I’ll just play pack mule!

So Saturday morning I said a tearful goodbye to my family, strung my bags across my body and started walking the cobblestone streets towards the Kombie.  As I approached the main highway, I saw the Kombie sitting there loading up people so I sprinted (Eileen sprints? Yes, on occasion–or at least I used to.) the last 50 yards or so in order to be a passenger on it. BIG MISTAKE! I twisted my knee. But I was a woman on a mission, so I just gritted my teeth and got on and headed for Tetovo. Upon reaching Tetovo, the Kombie turned a direction it has never gone when I have been on it. Ooops! I need out. I’ll just walk to the bus station. It is only about a  mile. The sidewalks, where they exist, are not very even and in some cases there is no sidewalk. But I had to get to my new site, so I trekked to the bus station, and bought my ticket . By the time I reached the bus station and got on the bus, my leg really hurt but I figured the knee just needed to rest a bit–the bus trip should do it some good.  However, when I got off in Skopje (did I mention our ride took twice as long because of mechanical problems?), it still hurt and was tender but I thought a weekend of rest, relaxation and aspirin would be enough.

I was wrong. It got continually worse and since I have had previous issues with aspirin, I knew I had to do something other than stay on a regime of more and more aspirin–I can’t keep taking them. So after about two weeks, I called the doctor (remember, this is the girl that doesn’t go to the doctor unless absolutely necessary) and she had me come in and gave me an elastic bandage and a cream to massage into my knee. But that didn’t seem to help very much, so now I needed to see the other PC doctor who is an orthopedic type. Dr. Darko wants x-rays, so off we go to the hospital–how many of you have ever had your doctor take you to the lab or radiology department? Now Darko is the kind of doctor I want to have as my permanent doctor. On the ride to the hospital he played tour guide and showed me where the symphony and opera are. On the way back he took me to the fresh pasta place and then went to a medical supply store and got me a new stronger bandage. The x-ray had shown some degenerative damage to my knee and possibly a torn meniscus. But let’s wait and see. He will schedule an MRI for sometime in January.

Fast forward about three weeks. In spite of rest and wearing the bandage, my knee still hurts like hades! There are times it hurts so much that I am in tears. So on one of my trips into Skopje, (which seem to be fairly frequent) I stopped at the office and he got an MRI scheduled for later that afternoon. PC staff escorted me back to the hospital, got me to the radiology unit who then slapped some headphones on me with some pretty rocking music (hard to hold still with some of that music but I did) and slid me into a machine for about half an hour. We were told the results should be in doctor’s hands the next day. Well, next day is our play day (see Peggy the Pint-sized Pirate.) and I didn’t hear from him–which was good as I didn’t have time to make it to the office. On Monday, 26 January, he calls me into the office to discuss my results.

Did you know that there are two meniscus in each knee?  meniscus-knee-tearThe plural is menisci! Turns out that both of mine in my left knee are torn. And since they haven’t healed on their own, arthroscopic surgery is indicated. Only problem is that Peace Corps Medical Office in Washington, DC has to authorize it and they determine when and where. So the options are as follows: Home , Washington DC or Thailand. Now I just have to wait to see where they will send me. I will not be gone very long and will more than likely have to go to physical therapy when I return but truly this is probably a three or four day trip. You would think they would do it in country but, no. So now I am meeting with an in country consultant to confirm Darko’s diagnosis, then he will send the report to DC via e-mail and hopefully by late next week I will know what the planned course of action will be. Oh, life as a PCV is so much fun. No control over your own life. But I knew that when I signed up and agreed to it. And really, it isn’t so bad. They take very good care of us.

Part Two

I have seen the local specialist and he has a totally different take on the whole situation. Not only are my menisci messed up but the cartilage in that knee is pretty much shot as well. ortho_knee4My little incident with the Kombie and walking just accelerated the issue. Women have this more often because of the way our pelvis is built and the fact that when we carry babies, the weight falls on the knee and causes problems later in life. (It’s your fault kids!) This guy is recommending injections to the knee which will let it last a little longer but that ultimately (within the next five years) what I’m looking at is a knee replacement. Arthroscopic surgery will just make matters worse according to him.

So now the recommendations and the disc of the MRI are sent to the Peace Corps Medical Officer and we will get some kind of decision. All I know is that I am in pain and I want it gone! With any luck I will know something by the end of the week.

I think I need a bottle of wine!

Part Three

Wait, wait, wait and wait some more. The waiting is killing me and my knee hurts more each day. The cold weather aggravates it and the uneven surfaces upon which I must walk don’t help one bit! I begin to wonder what is taking so long but remember that the mail service in this country is less than stellar and the CD with the MRI had to go via snail mail–or what was supposed to be AirMail via DHL.  Keep on waiting.

FINALLY an answer! Starting next week I will begin receiving cortisone shots in my knee. The Orthopedist in DC will further review my file but at long last there may be some long term (i.e. not relying on pills) relief on the horizon.  This is not a long term solution but it is a good interim one that lets me remain in country which is what I wanted more than anything. They are pretty certain that there will be surgery needed down the road but for now, steroids will have to do the job.

 

 

Peggy the Pint-sized Pirate

Well, we did it! Staged our first Broadway production! Or should I say our first Goce Delchev production.  The American Corner Skopje turned 10 this past weekend. The staff there asked us if we could work with the kids and put on a short play. We had three weeks in which to do this. My sole experience in theater has been as a performer–never stage crew or production–Katie and Susie hadn’t even done that. But the three of us are PCV’s and we can do anything we set our minds to. So first we find an inspiring dramatic piece to stage. Hmmm, this looks like something we can do with minimal props: Peggy the Pint-sized Pirate.

The fabulous cast!
The fabulous cast!

Now let’s have auditions (how do you do those?!) and assign parts. Done and done. We schedule five rehearsals and one dress rehearsal before the performance.  The kids were amazing! They made us and their teacher very proud of them. Only one line was blown! The audience consisted mostly of their parents and friends but we also had Peace Corps staff and Embassy staff in attendance. All in all it was a lovely evening. And we celebrated by going out for some eats and adult beverages at Old City House.

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The strike sign!

In other news of the world……the strike goes on and is expanding to more schools throughout the country. My area of the country seems to have been the first to go out and now others are following. We are not sure what we should be doing during this time so we try to find secondary projects to work on. I’m fortunate to have GLOW. I also have an NGO in the community that would like me to work with them.  They work to preserve Albanian Culture. The strike here is nothing like a strike in the US. There are no picket lines. The teachers go to work and sit in the teacher’s lounge drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. They chat and then they go home–they do not teach. Since very few women here in the village work, keeping the kids at home does not create a hardship for them. No day care to worry about. But it seems like not all schools within a system strike. Katie went with her counterpart to the second school she works in and her counterpart was called “Strikebreaker.” Their other school was not on strike. So you really need to know what is going on when you walk into the school. Fortunately, my host father is president of the local syndicate (their word for union) and lets me know what is happening on a daily basis–at least in my area of Macedonia. Stay tuned for updates.

Break is over…..or is it?

So excited to get back to school today.  It has seemed like forever. The days are getting longer which means time is marching on and I want to get in the classroom. I have worked on lessons the past couple of weeks and am really ready.  Oh, wait! The teachers are on strike and I must stay away! Aaarrrggghhh! There is no knowing how long this will last or how it will turn out! From what I understand it is a financial issue and how long it has been since they received a raise. So we shall see! I know to not get involved and not offer opinions so I am not even going to try to guess what all the politics of this thing are. I just know I can’t  work as long as it goes on.

Burek
Burek

In the meantime, I watched Nazifete (yes she is back from Switzerland  finally) make burek.  It is a rolled up bread product that has cheese in it and is absolutely delicious. I know what is for dinner tonight. I will rush home from play practice for that!

Over the break I got brave and checked out a beauty shop in the mall and I am quite pleased with the results! The price was right and I will be going back. They have facials, waxing, “treatments,” and the much missed massage. I can have a chocolate massage, honey massage, essential oil massage, volcanic rock massage or a red wine body treatment. Most of these cost 1200 den which is about 24 USD.

I also had an episode of no heat. My space heater went on the fritz and the one the family gave me to replace it was pretty much useless–it was designed for a much smaller space. So then I got another one which was good but then it quit working. I was spending as much time away from home as possible–anyplace that had some warmth. Finally got my heater fixed and now I am nice and toasty. Fortunately, it is also getting slightly warmer outside. The temperature stays pretty much above freezing which helps.

This weekend I am going to see the live broadcast of the Bolshoi Ballet performing Swan Lake. Very excited about that. Should be amazing. It is one of the most beautiful ballets ever.  I do love being able to see a world class ballet performed by a company as distinguished as the Bolshoi!

We have had our first person have to give up their Peace Corps dream. There were some serious health problems at home and she elected to be with her American family. We all wish her well and will miss the joy and talent she brought to our PC family. And one of our PC family here in Skopje endured a break-in at her home where the thieves made off with money, jewelry and phone. She and her host mother  were threatened but not harmed. The house was trashed as they were looking for valuables. Always a frightening thing to hear. However, I feel quite safe out here. Everyone watches out for everyone else. That makes me feel very safe. As close as I am to Skopje, this is an incredibly rural area. There are people in Skopje that have no idea we are out here. Guess that is a good thing.

My language is getting better and better but no where near where I want it to be. Once we have school officially back in session, I can get back to working with my tutor. I feel pretty independent and that I can communicate effectively in at least one and a half languages. My Macedonian is suffering at the moment but I want to concentrate on my Shqip for my LPI (Language Proficiency Interview) in April and then I will work on dual language fluency. Fortunately I have a tutor who is qualified in both languages and will be able to work with me regardless of the language I want to work on.

 

Welcome to my world

This is primarily for those of you curious about what life looks like in

Looking down the street
Looking down the street
Sunrise at the mosque
Sunrise at the mosqueArnaqi e Perme.  It is a very small village and it is approached via this street. You can see one of our two businesses in town–a bakery.

Arnaqi e Perme.  It is a very small village and it is approached via this street. You can see one of our two businesses in town–a bakery.

Then just outside my gate is this mosque. The first call to prayer on any day occurs at the “civil twilight” (today it was 06.29)hour. The last call to prayer occurs at “astronomical  twilight” There are three more calls throughout out the day–at about noon, 2 PM and the “civil twilight”  (today: 16.58) before the last one at “astronomical twilight”. (today: 18.06)

 

This is a snowman that was chopped out of snow and stood up for Elsa–the child of the house. The front of the house–as you can see, I live in an Orange house.

Snow person
Snow person
Front of the house
Front of the house
The kitchen
The kitchen
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The Dining area

As you walk in the house, the “kitchen” is on the right. Very unlike an American kitchen but seems to work. (That is my bottle of Cholula on the fridge). To the left is the dining area. This is also where all the bread gets made.

Upstairs is where most of the sleeping is done in the house. (I say most as the host parents sleep in one of the salons on the ground floor.)

As you can see the bathroom has a nice size tub. I’m just looking for a plug so I can soak one of these days.

The tub!
The spa tub.

 

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My bed and desk area.
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Wardrobe and shelf unit

This is my room. Not much to look at but it gives me a place to keep my stuff and a comfortable bed in which to sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cradle
Cradle

And this is a a cradle which the children sleep in–even as old as two years old. They are strapped in!

And now for my famous lasagna! It was delicious. Only one person wasn’t real sure about it. Believe it or not, they eat very little in spices.  Onions and garlic are not prevalent here. Oh, mon dieu! How does one live without it!

Lasagna
Lasagna

Gone!

She’s gone! My partner in crime is probably close to crossing the Italian border about now.  She is officially an RPCV (that’s Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) now and taking her Close of Service (COS) trip. She is headed to Venice, Florence, Pisa, Rome, Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, London, Düsseldorf, Göttingen, Oslo and then finally to Orlando. Pretty ambitious trip. Mine will probably be fewer destinations and more time in the locations I choose.  More remarkably is that she is backpacking it. She sent only one small box home and that is it! She has decided to live the minimalist life style and plans to maintain that when she assumes her new job in March in China! What a woman! I salute you Beverly and I miss you.

PC Office
Eileen and Bev at the PC Office

We did manage to have some fun times together prior to her departure and I know that without her assistance I would be lost right now here in Arnaqia. But I can find my way around Skopje fairly well and look forward to doing much more exploration as the weather improves thanks to Bev.

Our drama club is coming along splendidly. Katie, Susie and I met with them last evening for our first full read throughs and are amazed at how well these kids are doing.  Peggy the Pint-Sized Pirate is going to be a smashing success. And they are already asking about future productions. We decided that we aren’t quite ready for the Globe Theater but we certainly have an enthusiastic group of kids and we have talked about where they can perform.

Jessica and I spent some time talking about GLOW after Bev and Lourdes left yesterday and I am thrilled to be working with her. I think it is going to be a great program and we have similar hopes and aspirations for the program. Will be going out for an Indian meal with her and Rachel tonight. Should be wonderful. Just has to happen early enough for me and my buses.

Finally some relief from the weather is in sight.  Our temperature tomorrow should be 10 degrees above zero so we should see substantial melting.  The ice and water on the marble steps they have all over this city is insanely dangerous! I look at it and want to just sit down and bounce down the steps on my backside! But the long range forecast looks like we will be above freezing during the days almost every day!

 

Adventures in Bus Riding

As I sit here this morning, I am thankful to be alive.  I wear long coats–it is my preference. They keep me warm, they keep me dry. It is that simple. That being said, yesterday was the most frightening of my life because of this preference. As I got off the bus in Skopje to spend some time with Beverly, my coat caught on the door. The driver is always in a hurry to get moving and so was closing the door before I had totally disembarked. The lining of my coat was caught on that door and the driver was starting to move. Fortunately for me, some students saw my predicament and got the driver to stop and re-open the door so that I could get disentangled.  The lining of my coat is torn and I will need to find a way to get it repaired. Perhaps I even need to consider a shorter coat. But as I walked away from this encounter, I was in tears at that point picturing my body being dragged along behind a city bus. It still brings me to tears to think how close I came to tragedy.

Odds and Ends

All kinds of quirky things to talk about. Food is the first one.  Many nights our dinner has consisted of French Fries or butter beans cooked into a soup with bread and ajvar. Very filling but the potatoes are somewhat lacking in protein. There is always  cabbage salad in two bowls on the table. It consists of shredded cabbage and tomatoes dressed with salt, sunflower oil and vinegar. Definitely an acquired taste. Everyone eats from the bowls. You don’t put it on your dish.  Good thing I like my family. We also finish our dinner up with either a Turkish coffee or a Russki tea. Both are delicious and very satisfying.  Meat is not terribly common even though the two families I have lived with have huge deep freezes! Guess I will have to give up my filets until I go back to the states or another country.

Now speaking of food…..the other day, the oldest son, Faton, was yelling at his sister because she didn’t get up early enough to fix him breakfast. His wife and daughter were visiting her family and therefore not here to take care of him.  When I asked him why he didn’t fix it himself, he responded that the women have always taken care of him all his life. That is the way it is supposed to be. ZIP! Lips are sealed. I was afraid I might say something terribly culturally insensitive and then have to explain myself away! Walked out of the conversation.  Yes, it is the 21st century but in many ways, this feels like the 19th at times.

And how do you handle a two year old that has decided to start biting people when she gets angry? My gut reaction was to bite back but thought it might be a good idea to check with PC staff to see what they recommended. Their response: BITE BACK! So that is what I will do if she does it again.

At the request of the American Corner staff, we are putting on a play for the 10th anniversary of the American Corner at the end of this month.  We have decided to stage “Peggy the Pint-sized Pirate.” Most of the pirates are girls and I think they will do a great job. The kids are enthusiastic and have a fairly good command of the language. It is only a 15 minute production so we won’t put friends and family into too much agony.  However, we do have a number of rehearsals between now and then and have put our cooking program on hiatus for the month.

Looks like our weather will begin to improve over the next couple of days. I certainly hope so as getting in and out of some buildings is getting rather tricky with all of the partially melted ice.  I bought spikes for my shoes and boots before leaving Michigan but everyone who was here said, “Don’t bother bringing them. We haven’t had any snow the last couple of years and when we do it melts almost immediately.” Foolish me! I believed them. So did a lot of other people. We are all wishing we had brought them. I’ll have them for next year and of course it won’t snow!

Ran into a friend at the bus stop the other day and we are going to get together on Thursday with a few others for coffee. Hoping we have time to discuss stamps as she is a stamp collector too and should be able to tell me all of the local haunts for stamps. The stamps are certainly an excellent way for me to fill up spare time. That and movies!

Merry Orthodox Christmas everyone! (fires are burning all over the country to celebrate it but not in my part of the country. It’s just another work day for us. )

 

Education Macedonian Style

Well, I’ve been at the school for almost a month. I have not been in a classroom in the United States for many, many years and yet I know intrinsically that there are huge differences in the educational system. First and foremost is the way students are scheduled.  Classes are not the same any given day.  Grades 6-9 have different teachers at different times every day of the week and generally they only have three days of given subjects. So I only see the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th graders three days a week. Our time slot is for 40 minutes but we never arrive “on time.” We wait about five minutes until after the bell has rung and then go in. The students will have  washed the chalk boards and all will stand when we enter the room and say, “Gooood morning, teachers.” Then my counterpart will open up the red book (a master book for that particular grade level) and enter the days activities after checking the master plan from the government to see where they say we should be. So now we are down to 30 minutes for class. Jeta conducts the class primarily in Shqip.  My intent is to do as much in English as possible. I can usually understand what she is saying but I have this archaic concept that a foreign language class should be conducted in the target language. When the bell rings indicating the end of class she then assigns homework and that can take about 5 minutes because she goes totally over the homework and then expects them to go home and write it. Again, I think homework is something that you use to practice skills/vocabulary taught that day not how well you remember what the teacher said the answer was. As we depart, they all stand and say “Goooodbye teachers.”

And talk about rigorous class schedules! Not only do they learn English but they also have Shqip, Macedonian and French! I seriously doubt that most American students could handle that much language in one week. Add to that history, maths, geography, science , health and anything else they choose to throw in and you have a wild schedule.  Students come to school at 07.30 and at 09.15 get a 20 minute break where they all run to the local bakery and get something for breakfast.  Somewhere after 12 noon they are dismissed. It depends on where that teacher is with lessons. They can be dismissed as early as noon or as late as 12.30. They must be gone by 12.30 as that is when the 1st-5th grade students are expected for class. Now we have 30 minutes with 3rd, 4th and 5th graders. But the same pattern emerges–do the red book, explain in Shqip and hope to teach one thing in the time we have. We don’t have the 1st and 2nd graders.

At year end students (not sure which grades) take an “external exam.” Two days before the exam the students find out in which two subjects they will have to take exams. The tests are mandated by the state and they are also the creator of the tests. From what I have heard, they are some of the most poorly constructed tests ever made. I hope to be able to provide examples soon.  And they ask for technical terms. How many native speakers of English can identify modal verbs, pluperfect tense, subjunctive verbs and ablative case? Not many I am willing to wager and yet, these students need to know this. Is there truly a practical use for this type of knowledge? I certainly can’t think of one. If the students score on the test is not equal to what the teacher gave them in class then the teacher takes a salary cut! Talk about pressure! It certainly has everyone walking on a tightrope! Teaching in Macedonia is very different from the United States and these teachers have incredibly difficult challenges. I can see why they want assistance from Peace Corps Volunteers. It helps them catch their breath!