Saturday, March 14, 2009

homeward bound

anyone need any cheap hair dye?! gaudy gold jewelry?! hurry tell me
quickly, time is running out.

sadly, it's true. I'll be flying out of Skopje sunday morning en route
through Vienna, Washington and finally Atlanta, where I'll arrive to
the open arms of my dad and a slightly fanatical friend, Sarah (oh,
how I kid you Sarah, but I will actually kill you if you bring a
sign). it's an unfortunante end to a trip and a mission that was
suppose to last longer, but every day I realize more and more that it
was the right decision for the circumstances. had I planned
differently, I'd hop over to the middle east and travel for a bit with
my pals Arjun and Ingrid, but I sadly did not pack for the life of a
vagabond. so I'll head homeward for an uncertain future, but there's
really nothing like spending spring in the south.

the hardest part about leaving was saying good bye to the kids; they
were always the highlight of my time in Macedonia. I adore them for
their openness, kindness and resilient spirit. I'd have stayed for
them in a heartbeat if I felt that the infrastructure of ambrela would
have allowed me to make more of a difference in their education. as it
were, though, my English classes were rescheduled and rearranged more
times than they happened on schedule. each week, a new program would
pop up that would take presidence over my classes so even when the
kids would show up on the right day and time, more often than not
they'd leave disappointed at some various reason for a canceled class.
ambrela, from what I understand, has had volunteers in the past but
none that stayed as long as I was planning on staying (even though it
was their representative who suggested six months). therefore, they
might have not been quite prepared for my rope there, or felt that
they could delay my projects since I would be there so long. for
whatever reason, it became clear to me this past week that six months
at ambrela would not be an effective use of my time or their limited
resources. as much as I'd like to stay, work post-housing debacle no
longer felt as welcoming and I no longer felt as necessary, or
passionate for that matter. I got as much accomplished in two months
as I was able to and feel that further time would not accomplish much
more. it's unfortunante, but it's good that I realized it when I did.

In between dramatic fights with my
landlady and breaking bicycles, I did manage to learn a few things
during my time here. I'll share a few things, which I'm sure you won't
care much about, but that hasn't stopped me before.

• I think the most effective Roma rights activists come from within
the Roma community. for as much as the director of ambrela and I
clashed, she is a fiercly strong woman who is passionate and overly
occupied (almost to a fault, I'd suggest) with Roma rights projects.
their unique culture along with their general seperate from and
distrust of non-Roma make fellow community members by far the most
effective proponents of change. a non-Roma would need the clear
support and perhaps even a partnership with a well-known Roma to gain
the trust of the community. therefore, if I am to pursue Roma rights
work in my career, it would be through a grant or similar large
organization that provides direct funding to Roma-led projects, such
as the Open Society or National Democratic Institute. that structure
provides the best distribution of talents, it seems.

• teaching is infinitely harder than I even expected. to all the
teachers out there, I have a new-found respect for your career and
your sanity. I'm glad it is your calling in life, it most certainly is
not mine.

• perhaps most surprisingly, my time in Macedonia has shown me that
not all former communist lands are equal in my heart. being in
Macedonia, learning the language, wandering around town, it all made
me miss Russia terribly. Russia carried with it a kind of magic that
grabbed me, I thought the langauge was absolutely beautiful and my
time there made me excited about all things Russian. I have not felt
the same affection toward Macedonian, it's langauge or it's culture
(and this is a bit strange, because we know how I love a good under
dog). shutka's unique feel and look were much more appealing to
me than Skopje, a city the combines the atrocities of soviet
architecture and a terrible rush to westernize. the combination leaves
the town feeling a little lost. so, part of my time upon returning
home will be to return to Russian, starting studying the lanaguage
again and see where a possible career path could take me.

so, exceedingly long blog entry short, I'll be stateside Sunday, back
in Tennessee sometime Monday, and happily unemployed and uninsured.
I'll upload some pictures then and then start the monstorous project
of lossing all the weight I've put on in my 'tour de Macedonian junk
food' I've undertaken since deciding to leave.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

the (physical and mental) search

homelessness brings with it all kinds of interesting side effects, it
seems. after the initial shock of borka's dramatics, I went through
all kinds of stages from 'whoa is me' to feeling on top of the world
about my new housing options and overcoming the obstacles placed in
front of me.

then I got to work, and my mood quickly settled in one specific area:
despair. it's not that the people at work were uncaring about my
situation, but it still wasn't quite as supportive as I had hoped.
when the manager and her friend came in to talk about my options, it
was like being under an interrogation lamp of guilt. we've never had
problems like this before. 'why didn't you stay in shutka like we
wanted. everyone else wanted to live with a Roma family and experience
our culture and lifestyle and there are no problems like this.' of
course, she failed to note that the other volunteers came for about
two weeks, as opposed to six months. I've done the homestay thing and
two weeks, totally fine. six months is an entirely different story,
not to mention that fact that I didn't stay in gutka because we found
no reasonably priced housing. when I asked if living alone in shutka
would be safe (a question I would ask of any new place, certainly)
they took it as a slur against the entire Roma people. when they found
out I had asked an outside source, a peace corps volunteer I know, for
help, they were beyond offended.

events like these bring out thoughts and feelings that may otherwise
lay dormant. I started reevaluating my role as a volunteer, and
combined with current events, started realizing how unsupported and
abandoned I have largely been throughout my time here. if work and my
managers don't support my time here, if they don't see the side of me
that I have worked so hard to present despite everything, then perhaps
this is no longer the best situation to remain in.

it's still a bit unclear, but unless things dramatically change for
the better, it may be time to make the situation better for both
parties. I've valued my time here immensely, but diminishing marginal
returns may be taking hold, as events tend to conspire together with
reason. I'll keep the updates coming as it unravels, of course.

oo and I'm staying at a hotel now, so I'm no longer officially
homeless. I'm also, on an exciting note, now able to shower as often
and for as long as I like. it's like a really, really clean heaven.

Monday, March 09, 2009

domestic disturbances

anyone have a cheap room for rent in skopje?! anyone?!

a wise man once wrote 'happy familes are all alike, every unhappy
family is unhappy in their own way.' certainly, this slippery slope is
true of my Macedonian home. borka and I got along swimmingly in
February. it was the month of international, trans-generational,
bilingual love. now of course, we had experienced a few
misunderstandings, primarily due to the langauge barrier, in our time
together. but mainly it was a positive experience, as per the previous
post 'borka's cronies.'

about a week ago, however, things began to shower. it began with an
honest request to shower (which, if you know me, is a pretty rare
occurance). this simple request quickly snowballed into a conversation/
argument about what a lavish, wasteful and expensive girl I was. now
before you all nod your head in aggrance, let's put this is proper
perspective: I shower twice weekly (which I discovered, the more I
shared my story, is pretty gross even by Balkan standards), have done
laundry twice in a month and a half, and sit quietly in my room and
read at night. i'm essentially puritanical, which takes a bit of
effort let me assure you. so I felt a bit offended when she accused me
of such extravagent behavior and stood my ground, as well as I could
considering my limited macedonian vocabulary when upset. after a
neighbor helped me understand that borka wanted me to buy essentially
everything I touched, from dish soap to toilet paper (a fine request
by all measures, certainly, but not part of our living situation in
february), I hoped things would improve. they did not- little fights
continued for the next few days, borka's tone of voice growing
increasingly hateful. when she refused my gift of flowers on
international womens day with a threat to throw them in the street, I
realized things were, perhaps, completely beyond repair.

tonight, my fear was confirmed. ljatifa, the head of ambrela, came
over to act out what I assumed to be a bit of mediation between us. in
reality, the conversation was essentially between borka and ljatifa,
leaving me to sit and try my hand at patience. the end of their
conversation resulted in my leaving borka's house no later than two
days from now. of course, the aftermath of the discussion has been
just as fun, including borka ripping my iPod earphones into two
(rendering me unable to call home) physically stealing my heater and
threatening to call the police as I tried to protect it, and her
claiming that she would search my bags to make sure i wasnt stealing
anything. after her most recent bombardment into my room, flimsy
nightgown and all, into my room, it appears as if she'll try and make
me leave tomorrow, but I'd just like to see her try.

so that's my little update for the week. it's unclear where I'll move
next, or if a lack of affordable housing will cause me to return home,
or really what my next step will be. fresh from perhaps my most
hateful relationship with another person, I'm feeling a bit roughed
up. tomorrow will hopefully bring answers, though it seems I'll be
unable to let any of you know via phone :/

Saturday, March 07, 2009

alternative transportation

in the interest of saving money and getting more exercise, I started
walking to work last week. it takes about 80 minutes one way, but
since time is something I have plenty of here, it works out well. and
after 10 trips back and forth I have to admit, it's about one of my
favorite things to do here. I've been busy downloading news podcasts
to make the time pass quicker, so I'm learning all kinds of
interesting information and keeping really well informed, an aspect of
life I've found increasingly valueable and important. basically, by
the time I arrive home in July I'll be a genius- so be forewarned that
I will be even more insufferable than usual. (I'll also, of course, be
unemployed so that should keep some of my smugginess at bay).

it's also given me a great chance to really feel and experience
everyday Macedonian life, much more so than when I slowly clunked
through the same streets on that ridiculous green pony. though Skopje
includes half of Macedonians population and is a fairly diverse
(relatively speaking, we're still in the Balkans afterall) city, it
doesn't have a busy, metropolitan feel at all. people move slowly, no
one ventures out on Sundays and very few people are out past sunset.
people tend to be loud at the rare moments when they communicate but
for the most part, the streets remain quiet. arriving in shutka at the
end of the walk provides a stark contrast, with it's crowded streets
full of people yelling and talking and blaring music from a variety of
boom boxes and car stereos.

the walk has also provides me with some more humorous moments. pony-
drawn wagon-like structures are pretty popular in shutka for what
appears to be a continual relocation of stacks of wood. these
horseshoes are, from my limited understanding of all things
equestrine, are apparently not designed for travel upon pavement.
therefore, when a Roma man leads his buggy down the hill at the
enterance to shutka, the trip essentially consists of the horse
sliding from side to side in a valient but entirely unsuccessful
attempt to control the free-falling vehicle. I also get a better look
at what people are wearing and I'll mention my two favorite finds
here: a faux-fur trimmed tank top and a yellow triangle bikini top,
both items fashionably worn over black long underwear. one thing is
for certain, I have not once been tempted to purchase clothing here, a
fact my wallet and suitecase are both very happy with.

I've also noticed that an unusually high percentage of people walk
with some type of limp here (I was one of them until I preformed
surgery on the huge blister that had formed on my foot) which is
indicitative both of the rather harsh way of life here and an
apparently weak health care system. it should be said that the
majority of my walk is through poorer parts of town, so this affects
the type of people and lifestyle that I am privy to on a daily basis.

but most importantly, the walk allows for increased comsumption of
unhealthy foods. and for that fact, you know I'll do just about

Sunday, March 01, 2009

'doesn't read instructions well'

spring decided to poke it's weak little head around Skopje today, so I
decided to celebrate by wandering out to the nearby aquaducts. it's
the first tourist destination I've really been to, and after over a
month here it seemed about time. the route to the aquaduct took me
back to my favorite highway, the first trip on my bike only a month
ago, and though it certainly wasn't as fun or fast to walk in the
little 3-foot wide shoulder, the cars certainly honked less.

I have, it should be said up-front, a problem with reading
instructions. it's a problem first identified in the forth grade and
clearly, it has gotten no better since. I'm of the 'figure it out as
you go' school which is usually slightly frustrating but generally
fine. this is, however, not so much the case when you're wandering
around the outskirts of a Balkan town alone and apparently clueless. I
follow the instructions to the first turn and then promptly put the
book away thinking, how hard can it be to find a giant, ancient
aquaduct?! apparently, it's not as easy as it would seem.

in the search for the aquaduct, I got to explore a small, rural-
feeling town full of half-built houses and overflowing with chickens
and roosters and all the sounds (and smells, I imagine) of country
life. if walked up to the highest point in the village to try and get
a clear view of the aquaducts. of course, they were nowhere to be
found. the view, however, was really wonderful, despite the presense
of two large satellite towers and an abandoned truck. upon further
examination of the layout, I recognized a few buildings and the city
cemetary, all belonging to the neighborhood of shutka. turns out,
despite my round-about way of getting there, I had really just ended
up in west shutka, in the more albanian region.

it was wonderful wandering around, strolling down the train tracks and
enjoying the change of pace. when I started to head back, happy with
my find despite missing the aquaducts, I dug out my book and gave the
directions one more look. and shockingly enough, one correct turn and
twenty minutes later, I was standing at the aquaducts. it was a bit
smaller and less dramatic than I imagined (not terribly shocking,
considering I hadn't seen them from the hill top) but as I was the
only person around, I spent a good bit of time exploring and taking in
the view from a small piece of history.

life has a funny way of behaving a lot like my little journey today.
you start out, get totally lost, decide that your new destination is
surprisingly worthy and are happy with where life brought you and then
finally, a satisfied person, you find exactly what you had set out to
find. the journey, afterall, is just as important (if not more) than
the destination.

and as luck would have it, I got home just in time to partake in a big
Serbian (pre-Lenten?!) meal with borka and family, whereupon her son
had a bit too much to drink and started talking incessantly about his
divorce, stopping only to turn up the radio and dance a (surprisingly
nimble) little jig. maybe I should have stayed at the aquaduct...

Saturday, February 21, 2009

dearly beloved...

at approximately 11:45am today, Saturday, February 21st, 2009, the
green pony was pronounced dead. or rather, in the even empathetic
words of the BikeStop employee: throw it in the trash. yes, after
fewer than three short weeks in my care and one busted tire, some
unknown and osstensibly essential part broke in the green pony and
caused it's departure from this earth. the green pony's advanced age,
over 30 years old apparently, rendered a replacement piece impossible.
the fall of communism in yugoslavia took with it a great many things,
including, apparently, the green pony replacement factory. so for
those of you rathered worried that I may meet my untimely death
adventuring around town with the green pony, may your hearts be
gladdened that a different sacrificial lamb has been chosen. may you
rest in peace, dear green pony (and may my bus fare not break the bank).

yours, amy

Friday, February 20, 2009

roma comedy hour

this past week, temperature have dropped to the lowest they've been
since I've arrived. over the past two days, Skopje has been covered in
a layer of snow that went from picturesque to dirty in record time.
the change in weather and apparent stubbornness of winter has turned
the kids a little wacky this week, with more than one day ending with
the kids being sent home early at the frustration of the teachers.

part of their wacky behavior has been manifested in what I like to
call Roma comedy hour, also known as the telling of really bad jokes.
(and if you know me well enough to know my absolute 'delight' of
improv and stand-up, you know how this is absolutely killing me
inside). particularly funny, apparently, are English words that have a
different meaning in Macedonia if properly stretched and exaggurated.
here's a funny: if you refer to 'my moon,' you're saying monkey in
Macedonia. or if you say 'I am a sheep, ta,' you're saying 'I'm an
Albanian.' hilarious, no? they didn't seem too phased when I tried to
explain that you would never refer to the moon in a possessive way or
that most non-Tourettes Syndrome folks would never follow the word
sheep with the meaningless sound of 'ta.' nope, these kids have a
strong stomach when it comes to their comedy routines. I will give
them credit, however, for showing me that if you say 6-2-9 slowly and
a bit slurred, it sounds like you're saying 'sex tonight.' so not only
is the weather horrible, but so are the jokes.

another little funny about the Roma community in Shutka is their love
of Spanish soap operas. now, these are pretty popular all over
Macedonia I think; Borka is quite the fan herself. but the Roma have
taken it a step further and proliferated their community with Spanish-
inspired names for their children. one of my students is named
Cassandra, another has a baby brother named Juanito, you get the
picture. it's absolutely priceless to wander around Shutka looking for
your nedt bread fix and hear calls on the street for Pedro and
Fernando and Juanita amidst such a vastly different backdrop and

all in all though, the kids and my time spent at school are my
favorite part of being in Macedonia. they're really and truly sweet
and well-intentioned, despite the horrific jokes and occassional
craziness. I feel incredibly lucky to have landed with such a great
organization- it's the most important part of my time here and
luckily, so far, it seems to be working out fabulously.