Friday, September 30, 2016

Lakocerej Village Life Series Year Two

          Alright for the second year in a row here are the photos from the Lakocerej Village Series. Again, I've focused on highlighting the activities and people at my work, home and in the village. Enjoy. 

Here on the first day of school one of the homeroom teachers is distributing the books to the students for the year. The man in the corner is Naymche, our quick witted handyman.
Day two.  For two days it had rained heavily in the valley. We had a little bit of flooding but it was much needed for the upcoming harvest.  For myself, the smell of fresh rain and the sight of the sun peaking out from the clouds is never under appreciated.
 We had these little guys for over a month but early in September they finally opened their eyes. So that morning my host mother and I took them outside to see the sun, and feel the grass, for the first time. 
Day four.  For my commute to Ohrid, or just around the village, I usually have to follow a tractor. 
Day five. The house across from the school had made great progress over the summer. They added a roof, doors and windows. It's unique that they're working to complete the house, since Macedonian law doesn't tax you if your house is unfinished. 
Day six. It  rained all day but the gardens, produce and farmers didn't mind one bit.
Day seven.  A few of the students from each grade presented to the school about Macedonia's Independence Day. (Which was the following day).
Day eight. The weather takes a rare pause. However, it wasn't a thunderstorm just calm, consistent rain. 
Day nine. The dreaded "red books" are what the teachers have to fill out for when the Ministry of Education inspectors come to school. If anything is not in order or if their writing is messy, the teachers can be fined up to 1,000Euros.
Day ten. Girls vs Boys Battle Royal. 
Day eleven. When it's blackberry season you have a fresh snack.
Day twelve. The grapes were ready to be harvested and processed so the wine and rakia could be made.
Day thirteen.  Mama kept a sharp lookout. 
Day fourteen. Focused students know fun games happen at the end of class.
Day fifteen.  This abandoned home, shot from opposite angles, shows the sad truth that my village, and many in Macedonia, is dying as people leave for jobs in the cities or abroad. 
Day sixteen. Thanks to the Darien Book Aid's assistance, my ninth graders picked out their weekend book, or comic, to read! 
Day seventeen.  It was Saturday morning when I took this and that meant the garage roof needed to be torn down at 7am. 
Day eighteen.  For the first two weeks of school the kindergartners were brought to school by their parents, who then stayed in the school lobby waiting for their child's two hours of classes to finish. 
Day nineteen. The roof was coming along nicely but I was curious to see how they would line it before putting the tiles on. 
Day twenty, the construction continues.
Day twenty-one. We practiced spelling with a bit of hopscotch. The best part was seeing the students that struggle writing the words, spell them with ease kinetically.
Day twenty-two. Some of my students had been asking to take a selfie for months and on that day I finally cracked.
Day twenty three. My host brother, Petar, enjoys his Friday night playing with one of the cats. (He's quite fond of them and always pets them nicely). 
Day twenty four.  Less than a week after starting construction the garage roof was finished.  However, it wasn't lined with anything over the supports and under the tiles. 
Day twenty five.  At the end of September it was time for the harvest of Lakocerej's main crop, the apple. (This was only a tiny amount being prepped for transport). 
Day twenty six.  I was told to pay the toll tax or else.
Day twenty seven.  We might not have had a school mascot but the boys loved this little kitten.  (They named him Marko).  
Day twenty eight.  Here some of the kids took a break from drawing and writing outside and pose for the picture.

Day twenty nine.  After finishing the afternoon shift this was my view on the way home. (Yes, it's unedited and unfiltered). 
Here is the thirtieth and last picture.   The 9th graders and 8th graders played a spirited game of football, soccer, during their breakfast break.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Two Years In Macedonia: An Honest Reflection.

          Yup, it’s been two years since I left Tennessee and started my journey in the Peace Corps. So pardon the bit of reflection this post will entail. However, I’ll share my difficulties in Peace Corps, what I've learned and what’s next during my final school year. 
          First, the reflection. What I expected by joining the Peace Corps was to be a diplomat first, a teacher second and an individual third.  All have proven true though the latter has been the most tumultuous. What I didn’t expect was the other people also joining the Peace Corps. If that seems foolish to read, it is. Despite my previous experience of working abroad, in leadership groups in college, on Capital Hill as an intern and within various sports teams I assumed most other Peace Corps Volunteers would be joining the Peace Corps for the same reasons and in the same order that I described earlier.  What a foolish mistake. 
          Additionally, I was utterly unprepared to be the only man not only from Appalachia but from the South as well. Being from those areas allowed me to connect culturally with Macedonians but it was more difficult with my American colleagues. Being open minded does not make one automatically politically liberal and being Southern does not ensure a person is automatically politically conservative. Many of my colleagues expected me to fit into their presumed stereotype about Southerners and I ensured that they were, politely, consistently yet unequivocally, reminded to not make that blunder.  However don't be fooled I've made great friends in the Peace Corps and have gained an appreciation for what having sisters must be like.  (Hint: Lots of feelings). As they begin their lives post-PC I will miss them all dearly.
        Next, I was in no way prepared for the mental butt kicking I received from learning a new language. I assumed, are you noticing a pattern here, that my oral English abilities would easily transfer. I was dead wrong. After our three month language training, when we swore in as volunteers I was, in full honestly, not only the worst language speaker in our class, plus the Sveti Nikole training site group but I was the worst out of everyone that swore in. It was a massive shock to my pride, my intellect. My greatest strength, my words, had become my weakest. 
          For the first six months I was here in my village teaching, I could barely communicate with my coworkers, students and neighbors. I'd signed up for the Peace Corps to positively represent the US but I couldn’t even communicate to do my job properly! Every night I went to bed with a splitting headache from trying to speak Macedonian and a deep sense of failure. 
          However, I wasn’t going to quit, to not give my best and improve. So I focused on the one thing I could remember: People’s names. My students, everyone I met in the village and in Ohrid. I waved to people when I rode by on my bike. Yes, they just stared at me. I said hello to people in the street. Yes, they just looked at me funny. Gradually, they waved back. My neighbors began to say hello to me when I was around. It was excruciating to see and feel people flinch when I spoke Macedonian, often incorrectly, my American colleagues included. Nevertheless, I refused to accept my Macedonian would continuously be awful. 
          Then after a year something funny happened, it started to click. Not smoothly and only for brief moments but I began to see the light. Those brief moments started to happen more and more often. The studying, and willful practice, began to pay off. The headaches slowly went away. As importantly my counterpart, and my coworkers, deserve major recognition for their patience with me and for their understanding to speak slowly with me.  
          As my Macedonian improved, more and more people began speaking English to me. You can imagine my shock when people who had only spoken Macedonian with me for months would suddenly turn to me on the bus, during a na gosti or just walking around and speak fantastic English! I figure it was because I was trying, and slowly improving, to speak Macedonian that they felt comfortable after watching me struggle. 
           I say this because I know that the pictures on social media can show a snapshot of the beauty, the people, the events here but not of the difficulty I’ve had. Every day, I've had to remind myself to relax, to focus on just one word and keep working at it. How do you take a picture of that inner frustration, that feeling of incompleteness? 
          Lastly, I have to say my host family has been remarkable. They had no idea who I was when they signed up to host me. We're very different people but they've welcomed my family, friends, other Peace Corps volunteers many times for dinner and visits. Sure it's strange to them I treat the cats with  affection, that I clean my place and that I exercise everyday but they roll with it. I do the same for them about the late night na gosti's, early morning music and we laugh about it. 

Moving on, some simple lessons I’ve learned:
  • Naps matter. A 20 minute nap will recharge you far better than a cup of coffee.  
  • Have a post-wakeup routine and a pre-bed routine. Those are your anchors for a day filled with the unknown. 
  • Consistency matters in everything you do. It matters in your preparation for work, it matters in the routine you create and it shows in your interactions with people. 
  • Every problem is an opportunity in disguise. 
  • Rakia, like a good whiskey, is to be sipped never shot. 
  • Just accept that everyone smokes inside, since everyone’s clothes smell like smoke it doesn’t matter that yours do too. 
  • Na gosti’s and slava’s are opportunities to connect with your neighbors, even if they’re different from you, to be reminded what you have in common, something we Westerners forget. 
  • Keep a bandanna on you at all times. It’ll be your handkerchief, napkin, hat, emergency wrap, mini-scarf, bag cover for the surprise rain shower and anything else you haven't thought of. 
  • Wifi is spotty, phones run out of power at the most inopportune time but pen and paper never fails.
  • 123.movies is the website to use for streaming tv shows and movies. 

So, what’s next? 

          Well, now that I'm beginning to see the forest through the trees I've realized how much more there is to do. My counterpart and I have our school activities to do and a SPA grant to apply for.  My coworkers are on board to do the World Map Project.  Outside of work, I’m the mentor for the high school boys YMLP Struga club so we meet twice a month for activities, workshops, cultural events and to just hang out together. (Follow us on Facebook)!
         Also, I’ve realized that I’ve done a poor job of describing my daily interactions here in Macedonia. I’ve been so focused on living here that I haven’t chronicled my daily experiences for you to enjoy. So I’ll be doing that much, much more. That being said, if you’ve got a topic, interest or question hit me up and I’ll write about it. Ajde cao.