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.
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!