School’s out

Part of the year end ritual in Macedonia is that they have what is called “External Testing”. Students will take two random tests and they need to be no more than one point off the grade they receive from their classroom teacher. Other wise, the teacher is penalized financially.

They take the test on computers. Our computers were stolen my first day of school but computers suddenly showed up (teachers brought their own personal ones) at school and we were hooked up to the internet. The test schedules were posted on the front doors of the school. Macedonia makes the questions available to anyone who wants them. Most of them are multiple choice but they don’t provide the answer options to those. So when you look at the question, you have no idea what they are looking for. A particular word or the name of the part of speech. Having the questions can help some but it will by no means guarantee a super result. You only get 25 questions when taking the test but there is a pool of 250 questions from which to select. And I should also note that the questions had quite a few grammatical errors in them. No quality control!

Test day arrives. So all the students scheduled for a particular exam are seated at computers and teachers and smarter students are roaming around the classroom. It has been announced who is receiving a “5” (an “A”) and needs to do really well on the test so once the time starts teachers and students help those taking the test to get the right answers so that test scores will match the classroom grade. No one worries about the 3/C students–only the 5/A and 4/B students. To say I was in a state of shock is putting it mildly.  And I was expected to help. As an example of how crazy this system is, the 9th graders were scheduled to take the French test. However, they have not had a French class since September. So they sat there with their smart phones and used Google Translate to take the test. No one said a word. Even the school director (principal) showed up during this and made no comment. I believe the class grades the students received reflect their ability fairly well. However, these tests measure absolutely nothing since there is zero integrity in it.

And the reason I have password protected this is that it is not the most flattering picture of education in Macedonia and I really don’t want to write something that  could be picked up by a stranger or the government. I love my school, my job and my family but this external testing thing is just ridiculous. Something should change. Wouldn’t I love to work with the Ministry of Education!

Summer Vacation

It’s the time of year we used to always look forward to as kids–summer vacation. I remember that it used to seem so long. Now I’m wondering how I am going to cram everything in.  I am taking a trip to Provence to visit lavender fields and drink plenty of wonderful French wine. Maybe I’ll even run into Angie and Brad ( 😉 ) in a local bistro. We will be visiting Avignon, Aix en Provence, Arles, Lyon, Dijon, Beaune, Cote d’Or and the Camargue. I’m anxious to see the horses of the Camargue. There is a wonderful song by Chris Rea that always makes me think of them. And I will get to drink some wonderful Burgundy that was first introduced to me when I lived in Korea by one of our University of Maryland professors. I’m counting the hours until departure.

I will no sooner get back than Steven will be in country and we will take a whirlwind tour of the country visiting Ohrid, Bitola/Manastir, and wine country. He leaves and I head to camp in Tetovo. We are conducting a leadership camp for young women called camp GLOW. I then have about 2.5 weeks off and then it is back to school. In my spare time, I am researching more ways to develop language skills in our classes.

The political situation remains tense.  The EU commission has been brokering talks but the opposition seems to not want to negotiate. It is all or nothing. There are still people camped in front of the government buildings and nightly demonstrations. But also on the political front, the government has pushed some legislation through allowing people who are crossing the Mediterranean to get to EU countries and jobs 72 hours to pass through the country and utilize public transportation.  The other day as I was returning from a meeting in Bitola in the evening, I was astounded at the number of people walking along the highway and riding bicycles along the highways with small children. I must have seen 150. No idea how many I did not see. It is a real problem not only here but also Europe wide.  There are no signs of ethnic tension here and the people are pretty insistent that they want none.  They  are committed to living peacefully with their neighbors. And, of course, since it is Ramazan, people are calmer and quieter. I understand that the last week or so gets a little more lively as they prepare for Bajrami (the feast to celebrate the end of Ramadan–not to be confused with the Bajram which will occur in September called the Feast of the Sacrifice).

Life goes on.

Day 1

Ramazan
A graphic sent to me by the host family’s daughter.

Ramazan began when the hoja did the call to prayer last night at 8.12 PM. But we had already eaten dinner and it didn’t seem like a big deal. The family told me that they would eat some where around 3 AM.  That’s good–I can probably do that. Well at 2 AM, someone was knocking on my door quietly calling my name. So I grabbed my robe and headed downstairs. Now anyone who knows me, knows that you don’t talk to me first thing in the morning. I need time to get reacquainted with the world and that requires no human interaction. They of course wanted to talk and laugh etc. I grabbed my yogurt and müsli and started to eat. They had a bowl of my favorite kind of bread–bread bubbles, in front of me and I managed to choke a couple of those little things down. But that was it. Did I want tea? NO!  Water? yes. Unfortunately they handed me ice water. I am not an ice water person. Give me room temp water!  I left the gathering by raising a hand and indicating I was going. I have no idea how much longer they hung out but I went back to sleep. On the positive side I slept through the morning call to prayer at 4.24. I actually slept until about 5.30.

After morning ablutions, I thought things seemed awfully quiet outside. I watched the street and saw no large trucks coming up and down the road. That is an unusual thing. Then I looked at the Burektore/local coffee house across the street. Not only was it closed but the gates to the parking lot were closed. That is the first time I have seen that since I have been here. They seem to be open no matter when I wake up. I suspect they will remain closed until tonight’s Call to Prayer. The hoja will want his coffee!  And probably something to eat. I haven’t seen a Mrs. hoja so suspect he depends on the coffee shop for many of his meals.

I have worked hard to keep the fast today but I have had to take sips of water. I get very lightheaded when I don’t get enough water. Food is truly an issue of mind over matter and so when I get hunger pangs, I do some yoga or play with my stamps to take my mind off wanting to eat.  The family has checked on me multiple times today to make sure I am okay. They tell me that dinner will be at 8.30 and I believe I can manage that. The trick will be to eat very slowly and drink my water mindfully.  Then we will repeat the whole routine. However, I am going to request that they not wake me for breakfast. I will manage to eat without having to worry about the call to prayer.  I know I will not keep this up for more than another day or two but it is a good discipline to exercise. The best part for me has been the no smoking. There are three smokers in the house and they all have to abstain. Woo hoo!

R A M A Z A N

Ramazan (yes that is the correct spelling and how they refer to it here) begins this evening. I know that I am unable to observe it the way the family will but I will be sensitive to how they observe it.

  • No food from sunrise to sunset (that includes ANYTHING to drink)
  • No smoking
  • No marital relations

I am very anxious to see how it is observed and how it compares to all that I have read.  My family is incredibly understanding and open. When I have a question, I ask and they attempt to answer in language that I understand. For instance, I’ve read that they will break their fast at sunset with a date, which is known  as  Iftaar. I have given them a package of dates. Will they indeed start the meal with dates? I don’t know. And they should be finishing up breakfast as I wake up in the morning and will probably go to bed at that point in time. I just don’t know. I have so many questions and I am incredibly curious.

I found this list of quotes for Muslims to share with people during Ramazan. Since I doubt that many of you know a Muslim who might share these, I now  share them with you.

  • Ramazan is the month whose beginning is mercy, whose middle is forgiveness and whose end is freedom from fire.
  • Whoever prays at night in Ramazan out of faith and in the hope of reward, his previous sins will be forgiven.
  • Whosoever recites only one ‘Ayat’ in Holy Ramazan, he will be awarded as if he had recited the full Quran in other months.
  • When the month of Ramazan starts, the gates of heaven are opened and the gates of hell are closed and devils are tied up.
  • It was the Ramazan month, when Quran was sent down to earth as a gift to the entire mankind, giving us guidance to live our life and know the difference between right and wrong.
  • Ramazan month is the month to feel hunger, hunger the poor people face every day and share the sorrow of sick people, to review our lives and get closer to Allah.
  • Even if all the trees on earth were pens, and the ocean inks, with seven more oceans added to it, the words of Allah would not be exhausted: for Allah is infinite in power and wisdom.
  • Ramazan is the month to fast, pray, read Quran and do charity and in return receive rich rewards from Allah.
  • If you open your heart and ask honestly from Allah, he is not going to ignore you, but he will focus on you to make you happy.
  • Whoever Allah wishes to show goodness, he gives him understanding of the religion.

Stay tuned.

Steven’s Take

The following is Steven’s take on Macedonia. The words and the content are his, not mine. Any grammatical errors  are also his!

From the air, flying into Alexander the Great Airport in Skopje from the north, one sees majestic mountain ranges to the west and south with Skopje laid out in a valley between those ranges and another mountain range that is not so high. The tops of the tallest mountains were still covered with fairly deep snow. Actually the mountains and snow reminded me of the Rocky Mountain range as you approach them from Denver. Everything was green down in the valleys. We flew over Kumanovo, which is a fairly large city in the north. Immigration and customs were easy to maneuver and the hotel had a car waiting for me. The airport is quite a distance from the city, but it is a modern four lane toll road.

The central city of Skopje is really quite modern, having been rebuilt after the 1963 earthquake. It is a city of statutes – mostly new but constructed to look old (ancient). They are everywhere downtown. Many of the government buildings are built to look Greek or Roman – tall but narrow. The river walk is a great place to walk and visit one of the many restaurants, cafes and bars – all of which have very nice outdoor areas. The outdoor areas are very helpful since everyone (or so it seems) smokes. When someone sat down at a table he/she immediately lit up a cigarette, put it out when the food arrived, and then immediately lit up another when finished. The days were warm to me, and the evenings cool. I understand that when I return in July it could be well over 100° F (40° C).

There are Orthodox churches and mosques everywhere, which makes sense for the region. Macedonian Orthodox is the primary religion, followed closely by Islam and then Catholic. Beautiful minarets everywhere. Interesting that the “call-to-prayer” is staggered so that each call is a second or so behind the first one. I did visit the Mosque across the street from Eileen’s house. Met the hoja as well.

Most Muslim women in the region dressed in a very western style and many wore hijab. There would be groups where some wore them and others did not. Few women wore burqas or veils, but I did see a few of them in the marketplace.

The marketplace was interesting- lots of small shops, crowded on Saturday when we visited, but not so much on Sunday when many of the shops were closed. I assume because of Orthodox customs. In addition to the shops, there is a wonderful covered market as well. The fruit and vegetable section was amazing and all of the produce looked wonderfully fresh. There are actually very narrow streets that cars and trucks share with the shoppers. Makes for a fun time when the streets are also filled with people. Did purchase a water color print from a local artist.

Once you leave the central city of Skopje it is apparent Macedonia is a developing country. Roads are very much rural and houses and businesses are not so modern. But then there seem to be several areas within the city that way as well. While Eileen’s village is technically within the city of Skopje, it is definitely rural and far removed from the city. It takes a 30-35 minute bus ride to get out there. As Eileen notes, the drivers drive like they are on a racetrack and one must be sure to get on and off quickly since the drivers don’t wait long before closing the doors. No AC and no heat. It was quite hot on the bus so I can’t imagine what it will be like in the actual heat of summer. I assume they are quite cold in the winter. The drivers pack as many people as humanly possible into the space allowed. Interesting to watch people trying to get down from the upper floor of the double decker buses and off before the driver closes the door and leaves. Apparently there are lots of people who try to avoid paying the fare. There was an inspector on one of the buses I was on and he did catch at least one person. But people take a chance they won’t get caught.

Eileen’s village is Albanian and Muslim. It appeared to me that there are at least two mosques in the village with one being across the street from her house. The home is comfortable, but still under construction. If your house is under construction, you apparently do not have to pay property taxes. That means no one ever really finishes the construction. Eileen does have a nice room that is her own, but I bet it is quite chilly in the winter and could get pretty warm in the summer. There are three living rooms – one for the men and the other two are primarily used by the women and children. A wood stove is also located in the family living room. There is a fairly modern bathroom with a western toilet. The men are supposed to use the outside Turkish toilet though.

The family is very traditional when it comes to gender roles and customs. We had Turkish coffee and tea in the front courtyard served by the daughter-in-law. Her role is primarily one of service. She is responsible for waiting on the rest of the family, cleaning, etc. Her little girl is very cute and she became my friend quickly; however, I understand she can turn on you just as fast. Eileen is teaching Elsa (the little girl) English. Most of the family do not speak much English.

The village seems to be a nice quaint place to live and work. Primary industry seems to be agriculture, although there are a couple of manufacturing plants in the area. Women tend to stay home and take care of the house and children. There is a little “strip mall” across the highway that has a café. Women of the village do not go there, though. I was told  women who are traveling back and forth on the highway do stop though. If the women in the village want to go somewhere they go down the road to Saraj and then only if they are in a group or accompanied. The Skopje city bus stops at the corner which is convenient.

Got to visit Matka Canyon. Bus takes you within about ½ mile of the dam and park area. Steep cliffs of sheer rock, a beautiful clear lake that goes for quite a distance back up the canyon, and a nice little lodge. There is also an old Orthodox church located next to the lodge. It was a holiday weekend, so there were a lot of people. We went on Sunday – early – and missed the crowds. The place was filling up by the time we left in early afternoon. The creek running below the dam is as pretty as any mountain stream in the Rockies. Words cannot really describe the beauty of the canyon.

Finally a word about the wines and food – wonderful and excellent. And cheap. There are Italian places, Mexican places, steak houses, Spanish places, Macedonian places. Even an Irish Pub where you can get a huge breakfast for two for around $4.00 . Had a wonderful anniversary dinner at the steak place near the hotel on the river walk. Went to Eileen’s favorite Italian restaurant – excellent!!  Also ate at a wonderful Macedonian restaurant near downtown that is in the only remaining traditional Macedonia home from the early 19th century that has a wonderful courtyard. And I highly recommend Macedonian wines. They are among some of the best I have tried.

Looking forward to visiting some other areas of Macedonia in July when I can be there for a whole week.

Eileen is obviously engaged in the culture, the country, the people and her work. The people of Macedonian will leave their mark on her as she will them. What an adventure. What courage to commit to this for the next two years.

Sex for Sale

Let me first say that I love being female and all that comes with it.  I love having doors opened, receiving flowers, getting gifts and walking on the inside so he can get splashed walking on the outside. But I don’t like having the female body exploited to sell things. When are marketing professionals going to quit using the human form to sell things? Here in Macedonia, that is exactly what happens. Roaming around in Skopje the other day, I encountered these billboards.  And it isn’t just women that are shopped around! Men are too!

Using the sex-sells technique may cause people to buy the product once or twice because of  the content of the ad. However, if the product is lacking in quality, the advertiser won’t retain the customer for long. Not only that, customers may feel taken advantage of, talked down to, or flat out patronized. And reengaging the dissatisfied  customer is not going to be easy! So, ad agencies and marketing professionals,  let’s focus on the item and why we should purchase it, not on selling sex!

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Bitola–the Cultural Capitol of Macedonia

The dynamic duo was off again this  weekend to explore more of Macedonia. Destination Bitola.  It is the second largest city in the country and one of the cleanest places we have seen since we have begun our travels. We started out by meeting one of our colleagues for lunch–lunch is late here. Around 3 PM  and then dinner is usually just leftovers for something very light. I like that pattern–healthier by far than the American standard. As we were talking to Cindy I found out that she is a North Salinas HS graduate!  Kind of unbelievable. She graduated in ’67 so would not have overlapped my sisters or children but still a very small world. She is now from Denver so we have multiple things in common since we still own a house in Denver. (Or at least we did the last time I checked. I understand the real estate has gone through the roof there!)

Bitola map
Map of Bitola

Our guest house was literally right off the square. As we got our bearings we realized there would be far more things to see than we could possibly see in our weekend. We opted for mosques, churches, the Old Bazaar and HeracleLyncestis.  We didn’t make it to the museums and galleries but that is for another trip. There were many street cafes and we were assured they were all good but some were better than others. The streets were cobble stone and the people were helpful and friendly. At one point when we were just looking at the map to see where to next, a couple of young girls came up and offered to help us look at the map. The architecture of the city is very European in appearance and just lovely. I also learned that my Albanian is practically useless there. Only about 3% of the population is Albanian. Good thing I could use my survival Macedonian!

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Bitola Architecture

 

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Lots of green space

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ruins of Heraclea Lyncestis.

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Statue in Museum
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Handsome Fellow
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The Goddess Heraclea
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Looking from the small basilica to the large basilica
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Spare sculptures just laying around
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By the steps to the amphitheater
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Mosaic floor in large basilica
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Amphitheater (still in use)

 

 

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Heraclea Lyncestis