We’re in Vatasha! Last Thursday we found out this is where we would be for two months or so for PST – pre-service training. We’re staying with a pretty big family, three generations all under the same roof: our Baba, Velinka, and our Dedo, Dime; their son Anko and his wife Vesna; and their son little Dime, who’s 9 and making fast friends with Kyle. They play soccer in the hallway, not sure Baba would be happy if she knew how many times they’ve almost broken the light fixture! They also have another daughter, Forsina, who lives with her husband Goran in the next town over (the big city around here at 40,000 people, Kavadartsi). They run a print shop and speak pretty good English, which has been a real lifesaver the last couple of days. They have three kids, Maria (19, going to university for computer engineering in Skopje), Boyan (12) and Philip (5), so when they whole family is over it’s a big, cozy crowd. There’s also the family dog, Doody, who is adorable and truly loves love, but has to stay outside. Vatasha is super small, we haven’t really had a chance to explore yet since we’ve been hanging out with the family and it’s been raining.
Language class starts up again tomorrow: four hours a day, five days a week, until December. Hopefully our Macedonian will be better quickly, it’s only day 2 and I’ve pretty much exhausted the conversations I can have! I’m really looking forward to it, but am a little afraid my brain will actually explode since I’m bombarding it with Macedonian 24/7.
Today I got to watch Baba make preserves and jam out of Donya, this big green fruit that doesn’t have a lot of flavor on its own but tastes like honey when boiled down with a ton of sugar. She made aijvar, the Macedonian pepper spread that’s being made in quantity in every house in the country, before we got here. It’s pepper harvesting season, and each house uses something like 100 kg (over 200 lbs) of peppers that are kind of like long bell peppers, boiling and smashing them down to a kind of paste/spread that you eat with bread and a hard crumbly cows milk cheese. Soooooooo gooooood. There are a few more huge bags of peppers in the garage, so I’m hopeful for another aijvar making session sometime (it takes 2 days!!) Our host family grows and makes most of their food themselves. We have a huge garden out back, plus a vineyard/farm slightly out of town. They have a horse and chickens, and outside our bedroom window are two huge barrels for distilling rakija. The rakija is delicious but very strong, and tastes like something between brandy and good tequila. They also make wine, which I think we are going to get to help with next weekend.
We’ve been in our intensive language classes for four days, and somehow my French has never been better.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about when I was in college and was studying abroad in Grenoble. I remember being kind of freaked out about the whole homestay thing then – my host mom didn’t speak a word of English (except, as I would find out later, to say “spider!”) and even though I’d been studying French for six years, all my words seemed to vanish from my head the minute I walked in the door. I didn’t feel like I had anything to say, and after living 3,000 miles away from my own family for two years it was weird to be under someone else’s roof. It got better and I ended up really liking my time with her, especially after another exchange student from China moved in and there were three of us to mash language together with, but I took for granted at the time how much easier it was at least being able to communicate my basic needs – I’m going to take a shower, what’s in the quiche today, what’s happening in the news.
I really, really like my baba here in Vatasha, but not being able to understand each other is completely exhausting sometimes. It’s balanced by having some funny pseudo-conversations, with lots of gestures and pointing, and her rattling off something quick in Macedonian and me smiling back at her with no idea what’s going on. But she gives me hugs and kisses me on the cheek, so I feel at home anyway.
I’m also getting to know Vesna better, and I think when I have more Macedonian under my belt it’ll be nice to hear more about her. So far all I know is that she’s 33, and does all of the housework, and her parents live behind the only kafana in town. She’s been going over at night to help them make their own batch of ајвар (side note, I figured out how to type in Macedonian! so be prepared for some cyrillic. This last word is pronounced I-var, and it’s like a bell pepper and eggplant spread), since we finished making ours a couple of nights ago. She also goes with Baba and Dedo to the fields to help harvest the grapes. Last night they brought home probably a couple hundred kilos of them – some got mashed up and put in barrels by the side of the house to ferment into ракија (rakiya! moonshine!), some were kept to eat, and some were repackaged to sell in a cooperative that a lot of the local farmers are members of. We found out our family makes most of their money selling produce, and they also sell the ракија and wine they make. There’s a 300 liter cistern for wine in the garage, but underneath where the car is parked there’s a 400 liter cistern for aging the ракија. Dedo walked us through the process of making it, which true to form he does completely the old fashioned way.
Little Dime has become our running form of entertainment. He knows only one line from one song, but loves to sing it all the time – “I feel good!” He also like to shout “Rambo!” and then pretend to be shooting things – Kyle is like the older brother he never had, so he also likes to jump out from behind things on our way to school and ambush him. His favorite word in English is “Bullshit!”, we’re pretty sure he knows it’s a bad word but thinks it’s hilarious anyway.
Tomorrow I get to meet my counterpart for my practicum. I’ll be doing some kind of project with Jana for the Red Cross in Kavadartsi! Hoping it’ll be a cool introduction to NGO work in Macedonia. I know there a few Red Cross chapters across the country, and especially with the refugee crisis happening here right now it could be a really interesting time to work with them. I’m also excited to see what they do locally, and how it’s different from what the Red Cross does in the US. Kyle is going to be working with the municipality/local government office, which should also be awesome.
Our first week of class is finished and I think my brain is going to fall out of my ears. But my Macedonian is improving leaps and bounds every day, so it’s paying off. Its weird to actually be able to feel your brain growing inside your skull.
Medical training today! While I will grumble about being so constrained by all of the PC rules sometimes, it’s nice to know that if something happens, I’m a phone call away from top notch English speaking doctors. And really, it was a good excuse to see everyone in Negotino for a couple of hours.
First meeting with my practicum counterpart was… interesting. We arrived to find that our contact didn’t speak any English (and I think may have been led to believe our Macedonian would be better than it is, since at this point I can talk about how I’m doing, where I’m from, what I do, and food), so she gave us the annual report to read, which had been translated into English, while we waited for a Red Cross volunteer to arrive who could translate (I think she’s an English teacher in Kavadartsi.) Once she got there it was much smoother, and I think it’ll be a great experience.
Finally, and maybe obviously… we have internet! Our family had wifi but I guess didn’t realize they had it, so we set it up and are good to go! I’m still going to try to limit how much I’m online, but I’ll be on FaceTime/skype/facebook more regularly now. Also: Orientation week pics!