I remember when I was 12 and my family moved to West Hills, we joked that we had moved into a witness protection program neighborhood. Even on the nicest days, on holidays, on weekends, everyone would stay in their houses/backyards, and aside from the occasional wave it just felt deserted. I lived in that house for 6 years before I moved away for college, and I don’t think I ever set foot in a neighbor’s house (and I can only remember a couple of the their names). In DC we had a small group of neighbors that we were friends with, but even though we lived there for two years and I saw the same people from our building on a daily basis, I never got to know most of them at all.
Fast forward to Macedonia, where на гости, or visits, are a normal part of everyday life. We’ve been given a crash course in the art of the на гости in Vatasha (come hungry, pace your eating, don’t fret if you completely lost track of the conversation) but our skills were really put to the test over the last three days during our first visit to Sveti Nikole, where we’ll live for the next two years*.
*For some people in our group, the scariest part of the site visit was meeting our new families, for others it was meeting their work counterpart, and for a few it was figuring out how exactly to get to their tiny village in the middle of nowhere. I felt parts of all of these things, but really what was in my head was “I’m supposed to live in the same place for two whole years!?! I haven’t lived in one place that long since college, and even then I at least moved rooms!”
Anyway, so back to the на гости. On Tuesday afternoon, the whole group of volunteers from Vatasha was invited to the local government office in Kavadartsi, the city up the road whose territory includes our village, to meet the Mayor. This was all arranged by Zoki, the President of Vatasha so to speak, who has also arranged to take all of us to Ohrid on Sunday and helped recruit the families who are currently hosting us. He’s a really awesome person. So the meeting started off the way these things usually do: the Mayor was running late on his trip back from Skopje, so we had coffee and tea and snacks while we waited and practiced our Macedonian with the staff. Before the meeting Kyle and I had taken a trip to the bus station to figure out how exactly to get to Sveti Nikole from here (the long story short is: you can’t, at least not easily) and were thinking about banding a bunch of us together to split a cab in that direction instead of taking the bus. We asked how much a cab might cost, and in truly hospitable Macedonian fashion… were offered a ride instead.
So Wednesday morning we met up at the school in Vatasha, and Zoki picked us up to drive us all to Shtip, the central point where we could catch a short direct bus ride to Sveti Nikole. We weren’t in the car for 20 minutes before we stopped for our first на гости at a бурек shop in Negotino. After chatting with the owners and drinking some tea, we were on our way to Shtip – and to be even more hospitable, Zoki offered to drop us all off in our respective towns so that we didn’t have to catch another ride. We took Emi and Dana to Shtip and then headed out to Probishtip where Melissa will be. Even though her town is geographically close to ours, theres no road directly connecting them and no public transit between the towns at all. I’ll also mention that by this time I was feeling extremely carsick (since the road to Shtip is beautiful, but very windy) and did not feel particularly sociable, which is not the best shape to be in when you’re going to meet the people you’ll be working with for the next two years. Once we arrived in Probishtip, Zoki called… the Mayor. He basically knows every Mayor in Macedonia from what I can tell. For our second round of на гости, we headed to the Irish pub next to the municipality office with Melissa’s new counterpart. The we were finally on our way to Sveti Nikole! All told our trip took about 4 hours, which is about 2.5 hours longer than it should have taken, but who can say no to a free ride/sightseeing tour?
My counterpart Jacmina picked us up in the center and walked us to my new office where I met the people I’ll be working with. I came back later in the evening because they were having a meeting for the members, so I got to dive right in to how things work. Our host brother picked us up and took us to check out our new home, which is going to be awesome! We’ll be sharing the upstairs with him, and have our own room (and a real brand new bed!!) and a kitchen. The house has a huuuuge solar powered hot water heater, so no worries about electricity usage. Our host mom Violetta made us an amazing lunch (including the goat cheese she makes, and that she’s going to teach me to make!), and our host dad Sasho let us try some of his homemade wine and rakija. We also have pets! Two cats, two kittens, and a very pregnant and super sweet dog named Gina (we’re going to have puppies to play with I’m so excited!!!)
Thursday was our day to shadow at our organization, get to know our counterpart and what they do, and start talking about what our role in their work will be. Kyle headed out to Mustafino, a small village about 15km away where he’s working with a farmer’s cooperative (which is run by an incredible sounding and ambitious woman, which is rare in Macedonia particularly in agriculture). We still haven’t figured out how he will get there every day for work since our host brother drove him for his first day (normally he’s at work by then), but Peace Corps is working on it. His counterpart sent him home with an enormous basket loaded up with all of the products the cooperative’s farmers make: wine, rakija, two kinds of flour, nuts, a pumpkin, herbs, tomato sauce, aijvar, two kinds of jam and more – and it’s all organic. I have a feeling we are going to be pretty well fed – good thing there’s a gym near our house!
My day was really interesting because we had a surprise visit (with one day’s notice) from the organization that’s funding my organization. It was great because I got to learn a lot about my organization in a really concise manner, and also about NGOs in Macedonia in general. I already have a lot of ideas for projects I can work on, so I’m getting a little antsy to just get started already. For lunch we took the donors to a famous (and super delicious) restaurant in town that make traditional Macedonian food, where I ate until I thought I was going to need to be rolled back to the office.
We walked around town a bit before heading home, S.N. is pretty small but has a nice park and a bunch of cafes/bars, essentially everything you need and not a lot more. I think it’s going to remind me of living in Nyons a lot. One thing that’s been challenging for me here is that people stay up late and go out late, and I have (an have always had) a bedtime like a baba. I like to be in bed around 9 or 9:30 and asleep by 11, which is seriously going to stunt my social abilities here. I’m going to have to figure out a way to rally in the evenings, at least until I make friends and they understand my need for sleep.
The biggest problem I think we’ll encounter in S.N. is that unless you’re going Skopje… you just can’t get here easily. You can take a cab, but that gets expensive (relative to our income). There are three buses a day to Skopje and you can connect anywhere from there, it just adds time to your trip. So when we came back today, we figured out how to get around this conundrum… by using an unmarked bus stop on the highway. We went with someone I work with who helped us figure it out, but basically there’s a bus from Kochani to Ohrid (east to west across the country) that goes by this stop on the side of the road about 10 minutes from town, and if you wait there and flag down the bus they’ll let you on. That’s how we got to Veles, which is a small city about 30 minutes away where 7 volunteers are currently placed. We got to spend some time wandering around and meeting up with other volunteers there before heading back to Vatasha, and it was a nice way to wrap up our trip.
When we got back to Vatasha, I was surprised at how much I missed being here. I’m sad that Baba’s not home (she’s at the Baba Spa until December 2nd, right before we leave) but it is nice to be back somewhere familiar. Only three more weeks before the big move!!