Dispatches from Macedonia
I'm afraid that if I don't slow down to write this all out, I'm never going to catch up with my experiences here.
This has been so different from previous study abroad programs I've done. When I was in Germany
, there were only classes. Everything else was left to you. My day was so occupied with negotiating chores, laundry, groceries, and all the minutae of daily life made exponentially more difficult by poor command of the local language, that I didn't actually have much time to meet Germans.
was the opposite. Our time was rigorously structured and we were given little opportunity to roam or relax. I spent most of my time doing homework. I didn't really meet any Japanese
people excepting my host family and their neighbors. Any free time I had was spent with Americans.
has offered a completely different experience. I've been relaxing. I've been going for swims and lying around. I've been stopping to chat. When I feel like dancing, I dance, when I feel like drinking, I drink, and if I don't feel like going to a class or a lecture, I don't.
If you know anything about my normal study habits, I'm sure you're wondering at this point who's stolen my account and posted in my name. But it's true. That relaxed attitude toward life they have here gets to you.
Tuesday night, my Russian
roommate, Maksim and a Polish
classmate, Barbara, came back from wandering Ohrid
very drunk. This astonished me, because Maksim had told me he didn't drink. Apparently, he and Barbara had gone in search of a laundromat, which don't supposedly exist in Macedonia. They hunted one down anyway, attached to a small hotel in the poorer part of the city called Hotel Lovec. The owner of the hotel assured them he'd do laundry, invited them in for muabet
, and served them first cup after cup of coffee, then cup after cup of a homemade Macedonian brandy called rakija
. As you may imagine, it packs a kick. After a few shots of rakija himself, the owner offered to drive Maksim and Barbara home, and while he did so he told the story of his son dying in a car accident over and over again. With each iteration, he drove the car faster and got louder. A sad story, but too frightening and surreal an experience not to laugh at a little. Absolutely trashed and giggling hysterically, Maksim and Barbara invited me to go with them the next day to meet him again.
The next day, Barbara decided she'd rather go to the beach, so it was just Maksim and me. We took a taxi to the hotel, about eight miles away (even with the crashing dollar, it only cost four bucks). A shirtless man in his twenties, solidly built and with a tattoo of an Orthodox
cross on his arm, met us in the courtyard beside the building. The Macedonians don't seem to have much body modesty. In the midday heat, everyone strips off their shoes and shirts. Service continues as usual
. I don't know how a straight man would feel, but this is terribly distracting for a gay man. Younger Macedonian men, anyway, tend toward being pretty damn attractive.
Old machines, matresses, clothes, and unidentifiable miscellany was stacked everywhere within the open building. A total mess, but the sort of mess that looked like it had a hidden structure to whoever worked there. The shirtless guy found us suspicious, but fortunately the owner's wife appeared from behind a door and greeted us enthusiastically. She took our clothes, promising to have them ready for the next day, and we left the hotel to walk toward the city center since the owner didn't seem to be there. The roads toward the Old City are narrow and surrounded by precarious, haphazard houses that frequently have additions half-finished. Cars squeeze between people walking along the sides of the road. Everyone is constantly calling to each other and gesticulating. I know that I'm exoticizing the quotidian
, but I can't help that it's all so different from where I come from. I'm perpetually fascinated.
Maksim and I walked through the Old City. He wanted to see some Macedonian Orthodox churches, so he asked a woman on a balcony hanging over one of the steep, cobblestone streets if she could direct us. As she was doing so, her husband came to the door and greeted us. It was a single step from "hello" to "do you wanna come in for coffee?" We were in no hurry, so we did.
The woman's husband, a middle-aged, overweight man in a wifebeater, sat us down at a bench by the open door and got us beers. Meanwhile, his wife started to make Turkish coffee
. He talked in rapid, Ohrid dialect Macedonian that I couldn't understand very well, and only Maksim could really respond to him because of the difference in our levels of Macedonian. Nonetheless, I get the gist. It was fascinating.
The man was unemployed. He'd worked for a construction company and risen to a manager level, but the company had downsized. Unemployment
is around 40% in Macedonia, and it was extremely hard for him to find a job, even in a tourist town like Ohrid. About the only route available was driving a taxi or renting out rooms in his house. If there's anything you notice about Ohrid when you first arrive, it is that there are hundreds of idle taxes and hundreds of vacant rooms for rent. In other words, there's not really any money in either of those jobs.
He said that Macedonians aren't business-savvy and that senior managers lay off good workers because they're afraid of the competition. Then he talked about the tensions between the Macedonians and the Albanians, noting how the Albanian
minority seemed to be better at business than the Macedonians and that this was irritating. He also complained that there was an Albanian mafia. But he said he didn't harbor anything against Albanians personally and that he hated when the national politicians divided the country by appealing to ethnic nationalism.
After that he complained about the Greeks and the "Thiscountria
" problem. Then he complained about the climate. It was mostly a lot of complaining, and I'm sure people more familiar with the country would have rolled their eyes, but, again, this is all completely new to me. Can you imagine that ever happening anywhere in the US? Asking directions from somebody standing on their porch and having them invite you in for coffee, beer, whiskey, having them make you something to eat? Never, never, never.
Anyway, we spent an hour talking, and then we moved on to see a church atop the hill that Old City spills over. Maksim explained the symbolism of the iconostases and I compared them with Catholic images. We explored the old fortress that circled the hill, then went back to the Kongresen Centar and attended a folkdance class. The instructor ended the classes by switching on Latin music switching off the lights. All the students danced the cha-cha
in the main hall, with windows open to the breeze from the lake, we were exhausted. I never dance, it makes me feel awkward and I can't stop thinking people are laughing at me, but here I didn't even bother with the discomfort. I was having too much fun.
I've met so many people here. There's a group of Polish girls who find my sarcasm hysterical. There's a Finn who speaks clipped, transatlantic English
that I love talking to about linguistics. I speak my broken Macedonian with a pair of rather attractive Albanian women, and English to a Greco-French woman who hates all the negative aspects of the Balkans the way I hate the negative aspects of the US. She's a good balance against my wide-eyed fascination. Where I see charming, aged streets, she sees crumbling infrastructure. Where I see close, friendly communities, she sees a small-minded mentality. Where I see hot guys, she sees bullshit macho posturing. Etc.
I've been speaking more English than Macedonian, to be honest. But I'm starting to realize that that isn't such a bad thing. Learning Macedonian is one of the reasons I'm here, but another reason is to get to know people different from me. To communicate with them, to exchange, to get a better grasp of what life is like for them. Communication is communication. You find a language you can work with and you go from there. If English happens to be the language most people here share, then all the better. That means more people I can try to understand. I'm still trying to use Macedonian when it's within my abilities, but I don't feel as guilty for speaking English as I used to.
I'm only narrating about a tenth of what's happened the past few days. But that's what comes to mind for now.
So actually, it's probably a good thing that I can't contain the experiences with a few paragraphs of written word. They're too wild for that.
Hiking through Horseville
Invited in for coffee
A short rundown that's not short