A Macedonian Adventure

When Dan Kearney ’00 wrote to HCM and asked about submitting an essay to describe life as a Peace Corps volunteer in Macedonia, he said, “I've always felt that one of the best ways for my generation of college grads, whose parents provided us with every opportunity, to give back is through community and global volunteering.” Certainly Dan and his wife, Jillian, have done that in their almost two years of Peace Corps work with the underserved Roma (or “gypsy”) population of Kriva Palanka, Macedonia. Here are a few scenes from their life in the impoverished town, and ideas for moving ahead.

The Honored Guest
I’m showing one of my students, Mimi, the seven different ways in which we can express the future tense in English. There’s no room on the kitchen table for the worksheet I’ve prepared, though, due to the assortment of food and drink spread out before me, the guest in Mimi’s home. Sure, I may be here to tutor a student, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a full meal while I’m at it. Granted, I’m the only one eating. And for some reason I’m drinking coffee, juice and wine all at the same time.

A guest just can’t enter a Macedonian home without eating something. This is especially true for me, a man—Macedonian women assume I’m incapable of preparing anything to eat and so if Jillian has not accompanied me they will make their best effort to save me from starvation, even if it means serving me three slices of cake at one in the afternoon. Mimi’s mother is particularly adept at trapping me at the table with a day’s worth of calories. All this, despite her being unemployed.

There’s a collection of deceased factories on the edge of town, the Ghost of Employment Past. Like those factories, the local economy is but a shell. One surviving factory employs only women in sweat shop conditions and a couple hundred men work at the nearby zinc mine. Otherwise, jobs are scarce and unemployment stands near seventy percent.

And yet Macedonian homes are extremely welcoming and generous. Guests are highly valued and even deferred to. Whatever you’d like to eat or drink; whatever you’d like to watch on television; care to smoke in a non-smoker’s home? No problem. Mi casa, su casa, indeed. What I find so frustrating is that this spirit of selflessness and respect doesn’t translate into the public sphere. Petty corruption barely raises an eyebrow, people litter with impunity and public property is treated with the sort of low regard that would never be tolerated in a home.

The Young Shopper

I walked into a local store. It was May 1, a big holiday here and the big, western-style market was closed. This was a typical prodavnica, cluttered with everything from milk and cheese to clothespins and cheap plastic toys. And juice, everywhere there’s juice. Sweets are popular in Macedonia and nothing’s as ubiquitous as these juice drinks.

As I peered back behind the young woman at the counter, searching out their selection of sausages, a young girl who had entered behind me spoke.

“Do you have Lasko?” she asked, standing on her tiptoes to see over the counter. Lasko is a popular beer from Slovenia.

The young woman glanced at me, and then said, “How old are you?” When the answer came back “six,” she smiled and told the little girl that she couldn’t sell her the beer. “How silly! You’re too young!”

But if I hadn’t been there, I’d bet you a hundred-denar note ($2) that the transaction would have occurred. No, the six-year old wasn’t buying herself a liter of beer; undoubtedly her father had sent her out to run the errand. Beer, wine, cigarettes, sports betting tickets—it’s not uncommon to see kids buying such things before they learn their multiplication tables.

The problem isn’t really when the child is 6 and running an errand, it’s when the child is 13 and decides she wants to buy this stuff for herself.

The Struggle
The rule of law: Macedonia struggles with it everyday. Yes, there’s a law prohibiting the sale of alcohol and smokes and betting stubs to minors, just like there’s a law banning smoking in bars and restaurants. But my clothes still reek when I get home from a night of food and drink. And high school boys, bored with the day’s lesson, paw through the odds sheets during class, planning their next bets.

The laws are in place, but the will to follow and enforce them is not. Macedonia, at times, seems completely unwilling to help itself. This is particularly true with respect to trash disposal. Littering is a major problem—so many of those juice bottles will wind up on the grass in the town’s park, on the river embankment or in the hallways of the schools. The schools, in fact, are a likely place to find trash strewn about, especially after the golem odmor (a recess of sorts) when the students make a trip to the store or fast food stand.

Generally speaking the schools in Kriva Palanka are in significant disrepair. Enormous water damage spots tattoo the walls, flooring is chipped away like the early stages of an archeological dig, and many doors won’t close properly or lock. The janitorial staffs do their best to keep the buildings limping along.

I volunteer in the high school, where I am daily greeted by friendly shouts of, “Jesus!” pronounced in the Spanish manner (HAY-soos), thanks to my beard, longish hair and thin frame. A few days each week I work with an English teacher, a young Macedonian woman named Kristina who has perhaps the mildest personality of anyone I’ve ever met. I attend classes with her and do some of the activities with the students, giving them the opportunity to hear a native speaker.

Much of the time, though, I sit and chat with Kristina while the students work on mundane problem sets. Years ago Kristina’s grandfather was the Communist Party leader in town and she grew up in a home that revered, and then mourned, Yugoslavia. They didn’t even celebrate Christmas. She’s fond of phrases that begin or end with “back in those golden days.”

Despite a physical appearance, which, to Western eyes, gives off the air of a dangerous, inner-city school, the high school is actually quite friendly, bright and positive. Okay, so the teaching methods and materials are very outdated and change is still dictated from the central government at a glacial pace, but it’s a fine place to volunteer and meet community members and students. Even after almost two years, many teachers still can’t figure exactly why I’d leave America for this. After all, aren’t we all rich back there?

Maybe, I say, but in America I can’t get any Lasko beer.

If you’d like to read more about Dan and Jillian’s experiences in the Balkans, you can visit their blog at http://danandjillian.blogspot.com/