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Peace Corps Macedonia 2002-2005 by Lisa Nicole Cooper
Peace Corps Macedonia 2002-2005 by Lisa Nicole Cooper
Departure and Arrival...
I settled into my seat in the Austrian Airlines flight, thrilled to have two seats to myself in the very back, to sleep. The plane sat on the runway for what felt like forever, and finally, started up. My heart was pounding from nervousness - more the fear of getting airsick than anything else. The plane taxied to the runway, and gathered speed. The moment the wheels left the runway, I noted my watch: 6:34 pm and 45 seconds. Don't know why I remember that - friends and family are laughing now because I have always been that way with numbers and dates. I watched our progress towards the ocean on the little television screen, and looked out the window for over an hour, until the last glimpses of my country faded away. I won't lie, some tears slid down my cheek. But I wasn't sad. Last 4th of July I cried during the fireworks and National Anthem in front of all my friends - this is just me.
I slept briefly, listening to my Discman. Suddenly I awoke and glanced out the window. My mouth dropped open in shock - my first glimpse of Europe! "Oh my God dude," I whispered, and then laughed at myself. I had lost three hours traveling from the West Coast to the East Coast, and we had all lost another 6 hours overnight. It was so weird to fly across the Atlantic and see the sun come up unnaturally soon. The more seasoned travelers in our group (that would be almost everyone except me) appeared relaxed and nonchalant, while I was gaping out the window wondering what country we were over (the screen was blank). We landed in Vienna, Austria, and stayed there several hours. I didn't leave the airport, but wandered around the shops, sprayed myself with perfume from the duty-free shop, and tracked down a bottle of water and a giant pretzel. We gathered our bags in one pile and people took turns playing cards, napping, watching over the bags, and wandering around.
Less than an hour and a half on the final flight from Vienna to Skopje, the capital city of Macedonia. The plane was crowded; people with large shopping bags, PROFOR soldiers, people pushing and shoving. I was hot, and wished for a shower. I was wide awake, despite having consumed more Dramamine in two days than your average elephant would be able to handle. I listened to my Discman at top volume, intent on looking out the window. I watched the telelvision screen as we avoided certain flight zones in Serbia. I wondered at what point we had entered Macedonia. I stared at the grass and trees far below. Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Is this Macedonia? Is it Macedonia now? I had to laugh at myself.
We began our final descent into the airport. I almost shrieked with glee. Everywhere I looked I saw rolling green hills. When the wheels of the plane touched the ground, my first thought was, now I am in my new country. I was so excited, I got off the plane and left my whole visor of 12 CDs in the flap of the seat in front of me. (I didn't realize this until we were leaving the airport on a bus. I was momentarily angry, but I realized, if I got this far, and all I lost was a few CDs I already copied to my computer, fine. I didn't get sick, no one got sick, no one got hurt, we're here. Look, what's that?!) At customs it took forever for everyone to clear through with their passports, and grab their bags. A lot of the Peace Corps staff were on hand to greet us. I remember all the weird little knats flying around, and an unfamiliar scent in the air. My head was spinning, I felt sweaty and tired. I tried to smile at the language instructors, who were looking at us curiously.
We piled on the bus, and I stared at everything. For once, I detached myself from my Discman. I didn't want to miss a word of the conversations going on around me. I had fallen into the silent vortex of my own world. The road signs in Cyrillic looked so strange, and with dismay I realized I had no idea how to say any of the names of towns. Arriving at the hotel, it was now evening, and we had less than an hour to relax before dinner and a performance of a traditional Macedonian folk group. I felt so tired and dizzy that I almost cried to one of the Macedonian PC staff, who look dismayed when I said that everything was nice, but all I wanted to do was sleep! It took a couple of months for it to dawn on me why this was - the culture here is much more focused on the group than on the individual.
The next five days, we had language, medical, cross-cultural and technical trainings in the hotel. I was in a state of total shock, and I got very sick and had to be moved to my own room. I couldn't keep down any food, or any water. I had lots of thoughts of coming home, and when we went on town walks I sent e-mails to my parents saying, our hotel is gross, it has so many bugs, I can't take a "real" shower, I hate it! They told me to settle down, get myself better, and remember all the reasons I had come. Slowly I came around, and made a decision that all the work I had done in the past two years to get to where I was, should weigh a lot more in a decision than three days of being sick and conjuring up ideas. So I settled down, and went home with my host family on November 20, my fifth day in country.
PST (Pre-Service Training)...
I won't talk too much about Pre-Service Training or homestay. My homestay parents Toni (32) and Ane (28) had a son named Nikola (2) and a big family who visited often. All the visiting and food in this culture was kind of a shock to someone like me, who is used to spending time alone and doing things independently. It was kind of difficult to communicate with them, Ane spoke English decently but I wasn't really supposed to be relying on English for communication.
If I went in my room for more than five minutes, they thought I was mad, or sick, or upset. They didn't really understand the concept of downtime. One time I was trying to explain alone time, and she responded, "Why would anyone ever want to be lonely?" She didn't grasp the difference - a very new idea for me. They owned a little sandwich shop in town, and I spent many fond if sometimes awkward hours sitting with my host father, who spoke zero English, trying to communicate ideas and learn words.
Five days a week, four hours a day, we had Macedonian language class. The 20 of us had been split four ways into Demir Kapija, Rosomon, Gradsko and Pepelishte. I really liked living in Demir Kapija, although constantly until the first week of January I still toyed with the idea of going home because of how much trouble I was having adjusting to culture shock. We had trainings most weekends in the nearby hub, Negotino. We took a trip in December, in differently mixed groups than that which we were living in, to four different towns around Macedonia. I went to Sveti Nikole, and really enjoyed myself despite the beginning of a nasty cold that would continue, without cease, for over four weeks!
We had a great celebration both for American Thanksgiving and Western Christmas, and our host families and the Macedonian PC staff helped make it really wonderful. I had occasion to travel a few times either with other Trainees or with my host family, to Prilep and to Skopje. PST was a difficult time for me because I was having a hard time with the language. Because of this, I withdrew into this kind of shell where I started really doubting myself. Consequently my work performance and my self-esteem were affected greatly. It was very trying, and I wish I could just forget most of it. I feel that I was not acting like myself, with my peers or anyone else. I was going through such a period of re-evaluating so many things. It kind of reminds me when I used to need something from the grocery store in college, and I would run in and be immediately stunned by all the lights, colors, sounds, input. Sometimes I would wander around, dazed, and leave without buying anything - passive and quitter-type traits not part of my core person.
After being sworn-in January 31, things got much better!