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.