Where in the World is Rene?

The weblog of an American Peace Corps Volunteer in Macedonia

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The Joy and the Horror

Sometimes we all experience things in our lives that we don’t quite know how to process.  It is now two weeks later, I still do not know how I feel about the Stara Nova Godina festival in Vevchani.  Stara Nova Godina literally means Old New Year and I believe the reference is to when New Year was celebrated according to the Orthodox Calendar, which is two weeks later than the Roman calendar. The premise of the festival (like they need a reason to party) is that according to legend, the Old New Year is when evil spirits come to wreck havoc on the good townspeople of Vevchani and must be scared away in order to protect the town.  So the villagers would dress up as the things that scared them most in order to scare the evil spirits away.  Fast forward to today and the villagers continue this tradition with interesting results.  Apparently, today’s Vevchanians are terrified of Cavemen, Surgery and pregnant wives in addition to some very non-politically correct subjects (like Barack Obama in the White House- hey, thanks guys).  The costumes are as wild as the men underneath in this rowdy pageantry of drunkenness, animal parts and bonfires.  Huzzah!

My pleasant stay in Vevchani kicked off in the town square as the costumed villagers began to conglomerate for some hot rakija and, of course, a quick oro.  Hanging out with the participants of the parade was fun, although my friend Kacey got tricked into eating a lard ice cream cone given to her by a man dressed as an Albanian (like I said-NOT PC).  I also got to see the drunken first launch of a group dressed (in blackface) as the first Jamaican bobsled team.  The Cool Runnings Crew started their bobsled off at the top of some icy stairs and then rushed to the bottom where they toppled over into the street.  Good one guys.

The participants all went to the bottom of the hill in town prepare for the main event of the day, a huge parade, while we waited at the top with some forties of Dab and high expectations.  I for one, after seeing just a small sample of the costumes, was full of mirth and impatience.  The band struck up a gay tune of wailing clarinets and pounding drums as the first villagers came marching up the hill.  The first costumes were of men dressed head to toe in red (they looked a lot like Klansmen honestly) whipping cow tails along the street and carrying baskets.  We were told that these are the protectors of the village who capture the demon spirits and expel them in their baskets.  Then came a procession of wolf men, an army of Serbs in full warrior regalia firing their weapons into the air, a delegation of Greeks with cabbage heads, a drag belly dancer ensemble, the cavemen brandishing a skinned weasel, and a hilarious troupe of men dressed as pregnant wives howling “No more babies!” and “giving birth” on the street. The costumes were elaborate and the participants included the crowd by grabbing, grinding on us and in one instance smearing a dead chicken across the face of one defenseless PCV.  My favorite embellishment was the use of real animal parts as costume decorum.  One very astute description of the whole affair was, “”The difference between Halloween and this is that when Americans want to have blood and gore, we use paint and peeled grapes…. here they just kind of cut open an animal and glue animal guts to themselves.” Bravo.

The second day was actually quite a bit more “interactive.” The second day is devoted to a large bonfire in which the participants burn their costumes.  The episode is a cathartic representation of destroying the evil that has permeated the town.  We began the day by attending a slava (banquet) in town with the parade participants who had obviously not changed, slept or stopped drinking from the night before.  A few shots of moonshine later and we were off to the town square to enjoy the bonfire. The bonfire was started (not well, the guy forgot to bring a lighter and tried to use wet hay as tinder) by a man dressed as death.  A cross was lit and thrown into a coffin in the middle of town.  Then death theatrically ripped off his costume and howled the howl of the damned.  The band commenced and all the villagers waiting at the top of the hill stampeded down and swarmed the square!  We were caught in a mad oro of stomping and gnashing teeth as the horrifying monsters circled the bonfire to dance.  We were prodded, groped, whipped with cow tails and generally terrified by the whirling mess of people.  The apex of the entire event, for me, was being whisked screaming and laughing into the oro by a wolf man and a cave person.  I stomped along next to them until, suddenly, the cave person forced me to my knees into the mud.  Another monster, brandishing a sheepskin on a large spear, approached us menacingly.  The cave person bowed his head and I followed his example, still holding hands with the monsters to my right and left.  I could smell the stench of the sheepskin drawing nearer.  Suddenly, I was pelted about the head and shoulders with the muddy, disgusting animal skin! I grimaced and a tear fell down my cheek as I whimpered…uh…okay, I guess.

We stayed at the bonfire for several hours.  Some of the highlights were Brittany being whipped in her open mouth with a cow tail and Jordan’s one on one showdown with death (it ended when Jordan succumbed to eating a pepper… but none of us know why).  At one point a six year old stabbed the weasel that the cave men had formerly been toying with through its heart with a spear and roasted it upon the open flame of the bonfire.  Then another child did the same with a chicken carcass (possibly the one smeared across Sara’s face the day before) and then they had a sword fight.  How children play. We decided to leave when the rakija fueled crowd started to get a little too rambunctious.  When they tried to cajole Jordan into the fire by saying it was “traditional” we decided to vamos.

All in all, I will probably be back next year.  At certain points, the dead animal parts and disregard for safety was a little difficult to be around.  It took a conscious effort not to projectile vomit when I was whipped with a sheepskin and when I accidentally stepped on a raw liver.  But it was also a great, hilarious spectacle and I appreciate the exuberance of the participants.  The whole town is truly dedicated to this event and the fact that they have continued it every year for 700 years is telling.  So if anyone wants to visit me for the 701st Vevchani extravaganza, I promise that you will have quite an experience.  I’m just not sure how you’ll feel about it when you leave.  I exfoliated.

We called these guys the Poop Monsters

We called these guys the Poop Monsters

Some monsters are a little too friendly...

Some monsters are a little too friendly...

Sweet Manlady on Manlady action

Sweet Manlady on Manlady action

Why, yes, Margie that DOES look like a skinned weasel!

Why, yes, Margie that DOES look like a skinned weasel!

These Werewolves would have scared the pants off of Warren Zevon

These Werewolves would have scared the pants off of Warren Zevon


The Holidays

So the thing about Macedonian holidays is that you never really know how many there are and when they are going to spring out and scare you like an ultimate-punching ninja. I can be walking down the street and -bam!- it’s Epiphany! Freaky! Actually, I am fairly sure that everyone else knows when the holidays are, they just don’t like telling me.  There are quite a few of them over the course of December and January and I’m giving you the run down of what they are for (if I was told) and what I did to celebrate them.

Christmas (American)

Yeah, I know (Joe) BOOORRRIIING.  But it was the holiday kick off so I’m including it.  I would have to say that overall my Christmas this year had a heartwarming rating of somewhere between Charlie Brown and Home Alone 2: Lost In New York.  Which I think means that there was a few nice “real meaning of Christmas” moments as well as “befriending a pigeon lady” moments.  No sticky bandits though, sorry.

My organization threw me an impromptu Christmas party on the 25th.  I had made some salsa for them to try, and Donka the program manager bought juice and cookies.  There is always a bottle of hooch in the filing cabinet and so they busted that out and we all sat around a screen saver of a fireplace and listened to Mariah Carey sing All I want for Christmas.  It was special.  Then I caught a bus up to Skopje to visit the Very Bob Cone Christmas Special.  Bob Cone is our Country Director, who had a party for the expats at his house.  When I got there, he was seated calmly in a rocking chair passing out presents to the lil’ Peace Corps Volunteers (I got a scarf! Yahtzee!).  Also made me kinda vaklempt.  The night ended with ice skating in Skopje whilst snow fell on the rink.  It was truely Kodak.

New Years

Went to a party in Skopje with some other volunteers and mostly played Catchphrase. The interesting part of the night was that on the cab ride over, my friends and I were held captive and forced to listen to a techno-elvis mix tape.  Also the driver proposed-first to Heidi and then to me clearly in front of both of us.  It was not special.

Window Smashing Eve

No one told me the name of this day, or possibly I don’t remember the name.  But it is Christmas Eve Eve (on the 5th of January b/c it’s orthodox).  So this holiday is kind of a wassail-type of holiday but with an edge.  Children go from house to house caroling and asking for treats like oranges, walnuts and pastries.  They also threaten to smash all of your windows if you don’t hand over the goods.  It is literally part of the cute carol that they sing.  Also, all of the adults light bonfires outside and drink rakija until they’re shit-canned at six in the morning.  Then they pass out full of holiday cheer.

Bozich (Christmas)

Bozich is Christmas.  It is on the 6th and 7th of January and as one sweet lil Macedonian devoycha explained to me: It is similar to Christmas in America, but instead of celebrating Santa Clause we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Uh huh, ok, interesting idea, little girl.  Bozich is a very family oriented holiday.   The night before is a special dinner to be enjoyed all night long with your family.  November 15th is when the Nativity Fasting begins, althogh most families do not recognize it until Dec 20th. No meat is eaten, especially at holidays, during this time and especially on Christmas Eve.  Also, a piece of bread is baked with a coin into it and is broken by the head of the household for every person at the table (also one for god).  Whomever gets the coin will recieve money and luck for the whole year.  Ane got ours- brat. The coin is then dropped into a glass of wine and everyone at the table drinks out of it.  If I were a religious person, I may have noticed the similarities between this and communion.  But I’m not and I had to be told by another volunteer. Whoops.  The next day is Christmas and usually families go to church in the morning (mine slept through it) and you can hear the chanting all throughout the town until mid-day.

Stara Nova Godina (Old New Year)

Old New Year is on the 14th of January and in most parts of the country is identical to regular New Year.  You dress up and party and go to a nice cafebar.  But in Vevchani the holiday is completely different.  It was a pagan tradition that on old new year, people would dress up like demons in order to scare away evil spirits in the town and protect it for the coming year.  So the villagers of Vevchani keep this tradiditon alive with some very interesting results. I did make it to the festival…but that’s a different story altogether.


Vesilica is actually a Roma holiday, and no one could tell me what it was for so I looked it up online and found this: Vasilica is celebrated due to the legend, that in days of yore, Roma people running away from the terror of the conquerors came to the “Great Water”, and the only deliverance was to reach the land by swimming the water. But, because most of them were women, children and elderly people, when they entered the water, it was very likely that they would down. Then, in order to save them, God sent them geese, which succeeded to save them from drowning, and take them to land. As a result of that old event and the mercy of God, they celebrate Vasilica every year as their traditional holiday.  This was one of those holidays that I found out about while people were celebrating it and I thought they had just invited me out for dinner.  I went with my organization to a hotel in Kumanovo and we enjoyed some dinner, drinks and oroing.  I’m told I slow danced with a secretary of Parliament. Whatever gets my projects approved.

Vodici (Epiphany)

This is Epiphany, the celebration of the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan.  In Macedonia it is a tradition to bless any large bodies of water around your village.  Ten a cross is thrown in and the men in the village swim out to capture it.  Big shout out here to heather and Aryn, two female PCVs who swam for it in lake Ohrid.  I did not choose to celebrate this holiday for two reasons 1) I have seen a matress float down the Kumanovska River and belive it to be 1/2 water and 1/2 radioactive waste 2) I am horrified of eating Piftia which is the traditional dish eaten on this day and can best be described as pig head jello mold with a smack of garlic.

So that is it…I think.  I may go to work tomorrow and no one is there because of “The Great Potato Day” and no one told me!

The Next Step

Well Hello,

Well let’s start off on a high note- I have the internetz in my very own apartment!  Huzzah! As we speak ( ha ha, I just realized how dumb that comment is) I am sitting in my apartment wearing booty shorts and listening to some post grunge American music and connecting with you, dear reader, through the World Wide Web.  Thank God for Al Gore and his divinely inspired invention.  But don’t worry tax payers, rest assured that I will only use this new tool to further the Peace Corps’s mission of community development in Macedonia and not to watch back episodes of LOST.  Inner Monologue: Do you think they bought that? I don’t care, at least my Matthew Fox obsession doesn’t cost them as much as the Tempe light rail did. Yikes.

So PST is over.  Yep, I’m officially a sworn-in volunteer.  I have moved on from the host family nest and now I am out on my own in a new town.  I feel like at this point I should give you a few details about my new town/job/life.  I have moved to Kumanovo, Macedonia which is to the East of the capital and very close to the Serbian border.  Kumanovo is the second largest city in Macedonia and has a multi-ethnic population of a little over 100,000 including the surrounding villages.  The city has its fair share of businesses and shops and my favorite place of all, an Irish Pub.  Kumanovo was also the training site for all of the PCVs when we first landed here, so i am already a little familiar with the city.

My organization is called RCC DROM which is a community center for the Romani population here in Kumanovo.   There are six people who regularly work there besides myself with many different backgrounds and skills.  The organization has been in existence since 1997 and actively works on many projects to improve the living standards and social standing of the Romani community.  Currently, the organization is focusing on programs within the criteria of the Decade of Roma Inclusion, which is a multi-lateral initiative between nine countries in Southeastern Europe to improve the lives of the Roma people. The priorities of the initiative are education, employment, health and housing.  No small task.

I am not totally sure yet where I will fit into the organization or what my “job” will be.  I can say that I was warmly welcomed and it seems like we are mutually enthusiastic about the future.  So for now I am just trying to settle in to my new town and I am taking this time to learn as much as I can about the organization and the Roma people.

A Day In the Life

Hi friends.  I thought it would be a good idea to let you all know what I have been up to.  That way maybe you can visualize what I am doing here in Macedonia when you are doing your American thing.  You are driving to work, while at the same time, I am walking home from class through my village in the mud.  Oh, but it’s the same world and we aren’t so far apart, are we.  And if this were a Disney movie this is the exact moment where Fivel Mousekewitz would begin singing…aw.

1) Host Dad wakes me up by saying “Stand up Pehe” because I simply cannot figure out how to work the travel alarm. The verb “stand up” is literally translated from the Macedonian verb stanyvam, which is what they say instead of “wake up.” A funny that I learned in week two of verb conjugations. Also Pehe is my nickname (see previous blog).

2) I eat eggs n oil for breakfast. Host Dad makes Turkish coffee, which is like cowboy coffee. I drink it with great care as not to get coffee grounds in the teeth.

3) Run run run to school. Arrive late anyway.

4) FOUR F-ING HOURS OF LANGUAGE CLASS. I have located the exact area of the brain where language comprehension occurs. It is in the frontal lobe, to the right and equidistance between the eyebrow and the hairline. I know this is the correct location because this is where my brain hurts.

5) Monday, Thursday and Friday I go home and try to run or walk or do something to work off the oil that was on my eggs, or the oil that will be on my lunch. Tuesday and Wednesday, I go to my community development practicum site with the Organization Na Zheni (Womens Org) in Sveti Nikole. This sounds exciting, but because I don’t speak much Macedonian and because they are busy, it generally entails me sitting off to the side drinking Turkish coffee and generally trying to appreciate the work they are doing. I try to nod enthusiastically in ten minute intervals to keep up the positive mojo. Also, I have helped them write some pen pal letters in English.

6) Go home; eat giant lunch. Lunch is the big meal here people, and it’s grrreat! The usual components are bread (but I am warning you: do not to dip it into the soup), ayvar (roasted pepper spread), cirenje (feta cheese), chicken soup (not of the Campbells sort), assorted salads (the veggies kick ass), and a main dish (meat n potato).

7) More Turkish coffee!

8) Back to school for a meeting of some sort. Believe me, Peace Corps is not in danger of running out of ideas for meetings. Today we had one about the cross cultural differences in medical care. Really, Peace Corps, I know it’s not America- I could have been shampooing the neighbors’ cat with that time.

9) Home to study. Psyche! I don’t study. I’m tired. I check my e-mail and look at all the hilarious comments on my blog (aww). Ok, sometimes I study. But I try not to learn anything.

10) Hang out with the host fam. Sometimes I play backgammon with Toshi, sometimes I take a walk with Biliana. Last night we all made apple pie. You just never know what those crazy kids will want to do.

11) Go to sleep under thirty blankets.

Well, there you have it, that’s my Macedonian life. I feel pretty busy here, and not necessarily because of all the standard Trainee activities. I think it’s kind of because even the simplest activities are challenging, like trying to buy shampoo or trying to understand why I can’t put my bread into my soup. It’s not a complaint, just and observation and the modus operandi of my life.

Anyways, I miss you all and I hope you have a fabulous Thanksgiving.  I am actually going to a Peace Corps Thanksgiving of about two hundred people tonight so that should be fun.  I will take lots of pics for my next entry.

пријатно! (bye)


I Learn the Macedonian Electric Slide and Whip It

Well Hello,

First off, OMG, I am sorry for being a neglectful blogger.  Sorry friends.  Worst.  Blogger.  Ever.  But truly, these last two weeks have flown by!  So much has happened that I want to tell you about!  So, hey, why don’t you stay awhile and pour yourself a beer or a cup of organic juice and I’ll tell ya…

I made luticka, which is a traditional Macedonian condiment.  Macedonians make a variety of delicious spreads that all involve more or less of the following ingredients; peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, onion, garlic and parsley.  This family of “bread slops” include ayvar, luticka and pinjur and maybe a few I haven’t been introduced to yet, but trust me I look forward to it and my crusty bread does too.

I went to TWO weddings last week! OPA!  They were great fun!  Macedonians love to dance “oro” which is like a giant line dance, except it is in a circle.  Imagine all the Whoos in Whooville singing at the end of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and you have the general oro formation.  The oro lasts basically for the entire wedding and don’t be alarmed if a plate with a giant pig’s head or an American flag makes an appearance- it’s all part of the choreographed genius of oro.

I baked a pie. Apple. And it was damn good.  The literal Macedonian description for pie is “lazy pita.”  Huzzah!

My language group dressed up as Devo for Halloween.  We made the hats out of construction paper and packing tape.  The great part about making construction paper hats with community development volunteers is that, even in hat making, phrases such as “strategic scissor plan” and “load bearing tape” are still used.  P.S. I was the lead singer in our rendition of Whip It at Hub Day.

I got my first taste of grant writing on an anti-discrimination project.  The great part is that the org I work for really liked my ideas and I think I was able to suggest something that will be good for their organizational development, the bad part is that I think I may have planned the first Macedonian Diversity Day.  EEK.

Um, Barack Obama is President.  Did you know that?  Well, it’s a good one so I thought I would mention it. It was pretty interesting talking about American politics for the past few weeks here. rust me, everyone was interested.  I’m trying to be diplomatic about it.  I am also kinda excited about the story of my lil ballot because it took a lot of teamwork just to get it to the US.  Because I didn’t receive my absentee ballot (boo!) I had to print out an emergency write in ballot at the Women’s org.  I gave it to Risto my Community Development Facilitator who took it to the Peace Corps Satellight office in Kumanovo.  Once there he relayed it to my Training Director, Evelina, who took it to the main office in Skopje.  At the Peace Corps Main Office, the Country Director mailed it along with the official PC mail to headquarters in D.C.  What a journey for one vote!  But, I would have felt a tad hypocritical looking at voter protection projects here if I hadn’t even cast a ballot.

    So that’s the haps guys!  It’s been pretty fun and I have been enjoying myself quite a bit.  I’m going to go out with my fellow dobrovoltzi to celebrate the end of 8 years of having my soul punched (Bush Administration).  Don’t worry, I’ll pour one out for all of you.

    Eating Luticka

    Eating Luticka

    Someone has to wear the flag

    Someone has to wear the flag


    Dear FIFA, My people are waiting for a call, Love Rene

    A BREAKTHROUGH!  No, I don’t speak Macedonian.  No, I don’t know where my job or my home will be.  No, I haven’t received my Peace Corps issued heater (seriously!).  But these issues are completely trivial because I found out that…wait for it…


    I know, you all thought I was totally clumsy, right. I thought so, too.  It might have been seeing videotapes of myself spinning in the outfield with my glove sitting in the grass during my T-Ball games in second grade.  And then there was the incident when I pegged a team member in the chest while playing catch at a softball game last year.  Whoops.  But leave it to Macedonia to really bring my unknown talents to the forefront, because I just played a mildly competitive game of football (not American) and totally loved it.

    It all started with trickery.  My host mom, Biliana, said we should go to a match at the high school that was being sponsored by the local women’s organization.  The match was in support of the FARE program which is Football Against Racism in Europe, so how could I say no, right.  Biliana promised ten minutes so that I could come home and study.  Ha.  I get there and the coordinator slaps a t-shirt on me and says it would be a symbol of support and friendship if I played.  Easy for you to say, man, you didn’t get pigeonholed as right field in T-ball because you were an embarrassment to the sport…of T-ball.

    Also, they want me to make a speech.  No prob, speeches are my fave.  So I address the crowd with my most diplomatic face and then I go hyperventilate in the corner for the next five min while the crowd is jamming to some spirited Macedonian pop music.  It’s OK, I tell myself, you watch soccer all the time.  Clearly there has to be some skill transfer between you and the TV.  Clearly.  Maybe you can channel the spirit of a dolphin or the foot of Michael Ballak or the entire animal kingdom to help you.

    And then (CRAP!) the game starts and immediately the ball is kicked to me.  Panic, panic, panic.  I stop the ball and pass it to a foreward who actually receives it.  Holy crap!  I just made a play!  I don’t suck!  Huzzah!

    Well, my team didn’t win.  But I got the award for best player!  It’s sad, but it is my first merit based acknowledgement in team sports!  And most importantly I didn’t embarrass the Peace Corps or all American women in general, so mission complete.  So at at the end of the day, I had to mentally high-five myself and grin as I enjoyed my juice pack.

    Channeling the ferocity of a Lynx

    Channeling the ferocity of a Lynx

    Haley, Ivana and I

    Haley, Ivana and I

    The women of Na Zheni in Sveti Nikole

    The women of Na Zheni in Sveti Nikole

    The Day of Seven Cakes and After

    Well Hello,

    Hmm where to start…Orientation Week ended last Saturday and since then many many things have happened.  I suppose the most important is that since then, I have been placed in a smaller group of volunteers (5 as opposed to the entire group of 35) in Sveti Nicole to continue Pre-Service Training for the next two months. I have also been placed with a home stay family for the training session.  I was not placed in a multi ethnic community, and so my placement is predominantly Macedonian and I live with a Macedonian family.  Because I was not placed in a multi-ethnic position, I still have to wait about a month until training is over to find out where my permanent post will be.

    Training has been pretty challenging.  Four hours of language lessons followed by community development sessions is enough to make smoke come out of my ears.  In addition, next week we will begin our practicum sessions with local NGOs which will last throughout the training.  I have been placed with a women’s group in Sveti Nikole, and I am actually pretty excited to begin working with them even though I am going to have some pretty full days.

    Although the training sessions are pretty taxing, the home stay portion is pretty fun.  My Macedonian family is hilarious and they really have many of the same traits as I do (read: had wine at lunch today).  My host mother’s name is Biliana, my host father is Toshi and my host brother’s name is Ane.  Everyone in the family speaks English at least at a caveman level, and Ane speaks pretty fluently.  There have been so many ridiculous things that have happened trying to communicate in a wacky pastiche of English, Macedonian, German, Spanish and general charades that I certainly can’t recall all of them right now.  One of my favorite bits is that my name in the Cyrillic alphabet looks like PEHE POPC, and because of it, my host family delights in calling me Pee Hee.  I feel that this has advanced even further than most nicknames, as they even introduce me to strangers in town as Pee Hee.

    Finally a fun anecdote that I think really demonstrates both the hospitality and closeness of my new community:  The second day after our arrival, all of the volunteers went to each others houses to find out where in town each other lived.  When we got to each person’s house we were invited inside to meet the host family, have a cup of coffee and visit.  At each of the five volunteers’ houses, we were offered some food and drinks.  Wait, offered isn’t really the right word.  Hmm how to explain… being given food in Macedonia is alot like asking your parents if your friend can come over for dinner directly in front of your friend.  Turning it down would be awkward and there may be some unwanted tears.  So each of the families offered us their own “special” type of cake, and at each one all of the volunteers scarfed it down.  After that I went to a birthday party with my host family where, you guessed it, they generally eat cake.  PS, there were two birthday girls which equals two different cakes.  So I ate SEVEN pieces of cake that day.  My host mother thought this was frikin hilarious and told everyone about it for the next two days (in Macedonian and in front of me).  So three days later I ran into another Volunteer from the year before whom I have met a few times and she told me she had heard about the Seven Cakes day from someone she works with. Ta Da! In Macedonia, everyone knows everyone else and they all know exactly how much you eat.  And then I found ten dollars.*

    *This is NOT true but it IS a very good way to end a story on a high note.

    Biliana's Cake Factory

    Biliana's Cake Factory

    Toshi the Nutcracker

    Toshi the Nutcracker

  • My Host Family
  • My Host Family