Sunday, December 13, 2009

Essay: On Filtering Water

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Everyone assures me that Skopje water is perfectly safe.

I don’t doubt it; still, I brought a pitcher with filters from the U.S.

The water that flows from the tap is thick, full of calcium, which you can see, taste, and feel as it slides down your throat. Esthetically, it’s a bit disconcerting when you feel as though you’re eating your water instead of drinking it. Moreover, cooking with it is nearly impossible--it thickens almost immediately and adds a grainy texture.

So for making coffee, mixing juices from powder, and cooking, I boil and then filter.

Every day, I boil water in a large pot and then allow it to cool before filtering it. This, of course, adds an extra chore to my daily routine, but it’s a bit like doing wash: once you place certain tasks in motion, it’s pretty much automatic.

Fill the pot with water, place on burner, turn to “3,” set the timer for 20 minutes (too easy to forget, otherwise), and go off to work on the internet or some other task. When the timer dings, make sure water is boiling, turn burner down to “2,” set timer for another 20 minutes, and leave. Second ding: turn burner off and move pot. Wait.

Once the water cools, I can filter about a quart at a time. Once it’s through the filter, I funnel it into a plastic two-liter Coca Cola bottle. Repeat until the pot is empty. Each pot fills about two Coke bottles.

It’s not like I wait around for the water to pour through; I leave it and do something else. Later, when I go to the kitchen for something to eat or drink, the water is ready, so I pour it and filter the next batch.

At any given time, I try to have on hand five bottles of filtered water, which I’m careful to rotate and use according to age. I have a system of moving older bottles forward and adding the newest filled to the back. It feels somewhat obsessive, but I would not wish to poison myself, spouse, or guests with expired water.

Bottled water is cheap here, about 18 denars (50 cents, more or less), for a 1.5 liter bottle; for drinking water, I buy Ladna because it comes in a really cool square bottle, and it tastes, well, like quality water.

So why bother going through the trouble of filtering water when I could just buy it? The short answer: I’d rather filter it than lug it home from the store and drag it up three flights of stairs to my flat. Today, I bought a 6-liter bottle of water, and I thought I’d die hauling it up.

In the U.S., I would scoff at the idea of boiling and filtering water, preferring to get my water straight from the tap for both cooking and drinking. In fact, if The York Water Company started spewing out calcified water from our taps, customers, including me, would be raising our voices in protest. But here in Skopje, this is the way it is, so deal with it.

In York, we buy bottled water only because my husband is under the mistaken impression that it’s somehow better than generic tap water. In fact, the U.S. bottled water industry is one of the biggest scams perpetuated on U.S, consumers; we have been sold a bill of goods because, for the most part, our tap water is pretty decent, probably better than some of the water in plastic bottles.

In Skopje, though, bottled water is a necessity; almost no one drinks straight from the tap. So, like American stores, the super markets here offer an array of water brands--the local Ladna, Jana, Gorska, Dobra Voda, and the imported Perrier and Evian, both seriously overpriced. Another tony brand comes in a square bottle with a white label and is priced at 52 denars. I have not tried it. It’s just water, after all.

You can find three kinds of water for sale: “still” water, water with gas, and lemon flavored water (gas or still). No silly flavors like raspberry watermelon or kiwi strawberry--just the basics.

The Macedonian brands are all priced about the same 18 denars, give or take a denar or two, and I see no difference in taste or quality.

While my Macedonian friends have assured me that the tap water is quite safe, they, too, drink bottled water (although they brew coffee and cook food with tap water); from what I understand, Macedonians who drink too much tap water tend to suffer from kidney stones from the excess calcium.

For me, the decision to boil and filter our cooking water is one of aesthetics; I want our water be clear and pure, even for cooking, so I’m willing to put in the extra time to make that happen.

Still I’m fairly certain that 10 months of drinking calcified water would not give us kidney stones, but why take the chance?

Filtering water is a kind of metaphor for the expat life, which often requires some small hardships for spoiled Americans accustomed to being pampered.

Overseas, we seem to be more accepting of situations we would not tolerate at home. We find ourselves adjusting our attitudes to fit within the prevailing culture. Had I moved to a primitive African tribe instead of a large European city, I might be pounding millet and dosing our water with purifying pills--it’s all about perspective.

As expats, we are more willing to put in the extra effort to create some semblance of familiar creature comforts, but we shouldn't be jerks about it--I would never tell a Macedonian that the city water grosses me out, so why don’t they organize a protest about water quality?

It may not be my favorite kind of municipal water, but it has served Skopje well, and who am I to say what is good or bad for someone else’s community?

Even though Skopje feels like home, I am, after all, just a guest here.

I have decided that I will worry about the water issue only in my own home; if a host serves me coffee or food made with unfiltered tap water, I drink or eat it without a thought and certainly no comment about water quality. Being a grateful guest trumps some personal aesthetic about the way I prefer my water.

At home: picky. Away: flexible.

I’m just so happy to be here, to be afforded the opportunity to experience someone else’s culture: teaching within their educational system, enjoying their food and drink, visiting good friends, listening to their music, viewing their art work, and buying their crafts.

Meanwhile, at home, I’ll quietly continue boiling and filtering my water.
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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Monday, November 9, 2009

Murder at Midnight (circa 1975): The Home Movie

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Courtesy of Sigmeyer, a.k.a. Eric Brown
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While I'm away, the mice DO play.

My son Eric dug out an old family movie, re-edited it, and posted it on YouTube. In the film, he's the cute little four-year-old boy who plays Cuthbert, the hero. The curly hair was a wig, thank goodness. Probably saved me thousands in therapy bills. The kid actually had straight puddin' bowl hair, in the style of the 1970s.

Eric in 1978. He was eight years old. I don't know why he looks so sad.
Photograph by Richard Semple.

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It's difficult to believe, but that film is nearly 35 years old, but I'm happy to report that all the actors are still around and doing well (The oldest actors were only in their 40's but made up to look older).

Jeff Brown, the director, was my husband then; we're still friends, but now we're both married to other people, I to Jerry and he to Casey, who must find this movie very strange. As they say, life goes on. We were two people who married too young.

I played the ditzy maid. The YouTube screen shot is of me. I don't know how YouTube chooses the screen shot (Eric says he had nothing to do with the selection), but I'm definitely not the "star" of the movie. I remember that silly dress; it was a real dress that I actually wore in public. What was I thinking when I bought it? Well, barcaloungers were also the rage back then.

It was kind of cool when Eric Skyped me today and told me he had downloaded the film to YouTube. Sometimes, I get a bit homesick here, and the internet helps keep me in touch. I can't help but feel a little nostalgic, for we had a lot of fun making that film--we were just so young and crazy, with lots of energy.

If you're interested in such things, the entire cast of the movie is here.

None of us are famous; we just did this movie for fun. My ex loved playing around with film.

And, yes, even then, we knew it was camp.

It's rain, rain, rain in Skopje.

Yesterday, I went out with Lile Ordev for Sahlab (another recipe here), which is quite good, especially on a wet, chilly night.

Later!


I tried to fix up the screen shot a bit, but it was so poor quality that all I could do was to create something slightly artistic.
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Sunday, November 1, 2009

Salvador Dali Exhibit at the National Institution Museum of Contemporary Art, Skopje, Macedonia

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Salvador Dali Exhibit Program, designed by Krste Gospodinovski

"Every morning when I wake up, I experience an exquisite joy -- the joy of being Salvador Dali -- and I ask myself in rapture: What wonderful things is this Salvador Dali going to accomplish today? Every morning when I awake, the greatest of joys is mine: that of being Salvador Dali." --Salvador Dali

"I'm an exhibitionist. Life is too short to remain unnoticed." --Salvador Dali

(Quotes are from the program,)

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I enjoyed a wonderful outing with the Cvetkovskis (Vlado, Olivera, and Mary) today; we went to the Salvador Dali exhibit, which opened at the National Institution Museum of Contemporary Art on October 19 and runs through December 19.

Most art aficionados are familiar with Dali's famous melting clocks and bright (yet dark) colors and neo-surrealism themes, but this exhibit shows a less familiar side of this flamboyant man: his obsession with Dante, angels (albeit their darker and baser side), Purgatory (a very Catholic notion), and Mars (I saw at least two self portraits of Dali on Mars). There was also the pre-requisite rendition of St. George and the Dragon (Artists seem to love jolly old St. George).

What was most interesting to me was the collection itself, which spoke volumes about the collector. All were prints, with the same print number (something like 2901/4765), which means that the collector must have bought all the prints at the same time. In addition, they were all framed with the same style of frame and matte (although this design could have been the plan of the curator who installed the exhibit).

My Ticket
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As a collector of modest means, I prefer the eclectic over any obsession with any one artist. My own walls back in the states offer a bit of this and that (a lot of Macedonian artists, along with paintings found in New Orleans, at auctions, and thrift stores). While I find Dali's work interesting and worthy of a solo exhibition in a museum, I seriously doubt if I could hang onto my sanity if my walls were filled with Dali prints. I'm not quite sure what to make of a collector who makes Dali his life's work.

After the exhibit, I bought a Dali poster and then filmed some footage of the city from the hill where the museum is located with the Flip video camera. One can see the new U.S. Embassy from this hill.

It was a gorgeous Fall day, bright yellow leaves and blue skies.

After the museum, we all went to the new Tinex on Vasil Gorgev. I really didn't need much, but I did pick up some fresh bread, dried and sweetened ginger bits, dried papaya, sunflower seeds, and a bottle of Zolta (rakija), which Vlado recommended for my liquor cabinet (such as it is).

I invited them to meze (American style) on Friday. Maybe I'll make some lentil spaghetti.

Later!

The Back Cover of the Program

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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Skopje Jazz Festival 2009

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Cover of Skopje Jazz Festival 2009 Program

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I wake up every day and wonder what I did to deserve receiving this fantastic opportunity to spend 10 months in Macedonia. In the month I have been here, my experiences have been terrific. (Getting sick was just a minor setback, and now I'm much better.)

So far, the highlight has been the Skopje Jazz Festival; I spent four nights in a row (October 23-26), listening to world-class jazz: Aki Takase, Marilyn Masur, James Carter Quintet, Chick Corea and the Power of Three, Brad Mehldau Trio, Michele Polga Quartet, Arve Henriksen/Jan Bang, and John Hassell and Maarifa Street.

It doesn't get much better than this.

Thanks to the generosity of Oliver and Naditsa Belopeta, I saw and heard several great bands play in halls with perfect accoustics. Naditsa and her friends picked me up every night and took me home, even on the Saturday night I forgot about the time change and nearly missed the Arve Henriksen/Jan Bang and John Hassell and Maarifa Street performances. But in the end, all worked out.



I loved Aki Takase's piano playing; she did things to that piano that I thought weren't possible. She reached inside the piano itself, and actually played the strings. And her energy level...Wow. On YouTube, I found a sample of her playing but not Fats Waller. Still, she reaches inside the guts of that piano and plucks away...

MARIA JOÃO & AKI TAKASE (1) - "My Favorite Things/My Funny Valentine"



I have never seen anyone do that before--which goes to show that something new can be learned each and every day.



My favorite was the James Carter Quintet. Phenomenal! I'm not well-versed in music, but Carter played the saxophone with great energy. Like Takase, he did things with his horn that should border on abuse, but, wow, the music that came out was simply amazing. This embedded YouTube video--which could disappear at any time--is from the Jazz Fest Wien 2008:

James Carter Quintet at Jazz Fest Wien 2008



I would classify Carter's Quintet as extreme, to-the-edge Jazz.

Chick Corea and The Power of Three was a close second, with just great piano playing.

This 2007 video offers a small taste:

Amazing Performance by Chick Corea on LEGENDS OF JAZZ



Nothing can match the live performances of great bands, though.

Arve Henriksen/Jan Bang and John Hassell and Maarifa Street seemed more like The Hearts of Space (new age) music so popular on PBS. I would have never classified these groups as jazz, though I still enjoyed them (but after the rather large Skopsko Pivo during intermission, I kind went into a dream state that was difficult to shake). But what do I know? I'm not a musical expert.



I enjoyed all the performers and feel truly privileged that I was offered this great gift. Also, thanks to Mito Belopeta who gave me his backstage pass as a souvenir (but not to get backstage, so don't worry, Oliver and all; I did not crash the backstage. I behaved like a Pollyanna).


By late Monday night, after Chick Corea, I was totally ragged out, but I had to drag my poor sorry rear out of bed early Tuesday morning to read papers for my Creative Writing class; by Tuesday night I was ready to crash. Other than grade a few papers and teaching one class, I did nothing but flop on the sofa and watch the Hallmark Channel (in English, with Croatian subtitles, and commercials in Hungarian. If anyone can explain this to me, please do).

By Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, it was get-serious time because I was way behind in getting some materials together for my classes and for posting on my Academic site. Academic Writing takes the longest time to prepare (which is almost always true of "service courses"). I'm mostly caught up now, but I still have to read some stories for Creative Writing before Tuesday.

On Saturday, I wrote Chapter 2 of Corpus Delicious, my blog novel, and posted it here. Will anything come of it? Who knows? The story line is pretty out there, but it's a book that has been nagging at me for the last five years. I'm not going to talk about it here, just write and post it and be done with it. I'll say this, though: it's not coming out the way I had anticipated. It's almost too much fun to write, which probably means it will turn out to be crap.

Vlado Cvetkovski called tonight and invited me to join him and Olivera to attend a Salvador Dali exhibit at the Modern Museum of Art here in Skopje. I think it's the large museum on the hill near Kale and the U.S. Embassy. I'll meet him and Olivera at their home tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. for coffee and then to the museum. I'm looking forward to the outing and seeing the Cvetkovskis again.

Macedonia may be a small country, but it does the arts in a major way. So many places to discover and things to do.

Later!
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2. Corpus Delicious: The Convoluted History of A-hh, How It Got Its Name, and Why You Should Not Ingest in Public

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Moved to Corpus Delicious, a dedicated space for this novel-in-progress.
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Friday, October 9, 2009

1. Corpus Delicious (a novel): The Board of Acceptable Body Weight and a Decent Proposal (Instead of Jail)

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Moved to Corpus Delicious, a dedicated space for this novel-in-progress.
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First Two Weeks in Skopje--More of a "Settling in" Kind of Post

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Our Dining Room
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Arrival

I left York, Pennsylvania, on September 23 and arrived in Skopje, Macedonia, the next day.

Jerry, Eric (my son), and Rhia (my granddaughter) saw me off at Harrisburg International. I must admit, that I felt a bit of a thud in my gut, so just as soon as I cleared security, I ran into the ladies’ room for a bit of a sob. I’ll be seeing Jerry soon, but it could be a long time before I see Eric or Rhia again. Rhia, now four, will be five when I get back, and that feels enormous, given that I will miss 20% of her life (so far). It reminds me that everything in life comes with a price; while living overseas on a Fulbright is a great privilege and gift, I’ll miss something important back home as well, but that’s the decision I have made. However, having Skype and MagicJack will be a great help.

It won’t be like 1988-1989 when Macedonia was still a republic of Yugoslavia, and the internet was still the milieu of computer programmers. Now that was a tough year; had it been up to me, I would not have agreed to spend 11 months in Communist/Socialist Yugoslavia, but it had been important to Jerry, so I went along. And I LOVED it; we traveled all over what was then Yugoslavia, including Bosnia, where, later (in the early 90's), the Balkan Wars heated up. We also traveled throughout Hungary, Romania, Austria, and West and East Germany.

We did miss an entire year of cultural literacy; even now, when anyone speaks of an event that occurred at that time, there is a gap in my knowledge. But now it’s different; the Macedonian cable company airs CNN International, and I can get news, including local, via the internet.

Life is definitely easier here now, even with the massive changes in the economy, educational system, and ever-changing political landscape.
Settling In

Upon my arrival on September 24, Gazmend Ilazi, Educational Affairs Assistant for the U.S. Embassy in Macedonia, and the embassy driver picked me up at the airport (Alexander the Great!). It was nice being met, a good segue way into my new world. Ljiljana Ordev, my long-time friend (from 1988!), met me at the flat (set up before I left the states), where Mito Belopeta, my landlord’s son, was busy with the internet people as they set up my internet equipment. Gazmend and the driver carried up my maxed-out luggage (Thanks, guys!). Meanwhile, Mito was attempting to fix a leaky and clogged toilet. He thought it was fixed, but, in fact, it was not. But it was fixed it for the time being.

After everyone left, I unpacked and created some semblance of order. Later, Ljiljana and I went to Bililla’s for Pizza and Greek Salad. Ahhhhhh. Home away from home.

Friday, September 25: I met with Zoran Ancevski, the chairperson of the Facultet, to get an idea of what I would be teaching: Creative Writing, American Literature (with an African-American focus), and Academic Writing. At this point, I knew the what, but not the when. From Jerry’s experience, I knew to expect this and decided long ago to go with the flow and not allow my anal-retentive American side to take over. Besides, with the new educational changes (Bologna Accords) and requirements, Macedonian educators are going through a difficult transition, and I’m not interested in adding to their stress. I knew things would settle down for me. As Ljiljana says, “Don’t worry, be happy.”

Just to see how long it would take, I walked to and from the University; it’s about two miles each way (40-minute walk), but it’s flat and not a difficult walk. On the way home, I stopped at a small antique shop near the shopping center, but I didn’t buy anything.

Downtown Skopje is SO lively and vibrant. It’s always bustling with music, outdoor cafes, and shops. On the way home from the university, I stumbled upon a sort of honey festival. Sellers were offering homemade honey and beekeeping paraphernalia for sale–even the aroma of honey hung in the air! The center of town is truly the heart of the city, and I fervently hope that this downtown doesn’t suffer the ill fate of so many U.S. downtowns. Four years ago, when the Ramstore Mall opened near my flat, I cringed. I thought that maybe this would be the beginning of the end for the center, but, if anything, the downtown is livelier than ever.

After experiencing the honey festival, I stopped at the Ramstore grocery store for a few items. Because of being on foot, I couldn’t buy much, just a few things to tide me over for a few days.

September 26 and 27 (Saturday and Sunday). These two days ran together as the plumbing crisis continued and escalated. A plumber was called in; he tried to fix the old toilet, but it was beyond help. And he needed a part. So he put it together so that I would have a toilet overnight.

The upshot: after two days and about five trips from the plumbing store, the plumber concluded that new pipes and a new toilet would need to be installed. Naditsa Belopeta, my landlord’s wife, was extremely helpful in getting all this orchestrated. On Sunday afternoon, while the apartment bathroom was all torn apart, I bought some serious groceries and a grocery cart to go back forth to school and the grocery store. The cart allows me to buy twice the amount of groceries than I would be able to manage just on foot. It looks kind of nerdy, but I’m not the only one wheeling a cart around, so I don’t feel as conspicuous as I might back home.

By Monday, the 28th, the new toilet and plumbing were up and running properly. But there are still minor things wrong in the apartment. The internet connection is still a bit spotty at times and probably will remain that way. Also, a towel bar fell out of the bathroom wall, and a light bulb exploded in the kitchen. I still don’t understand why Europe chose to use 220 current for everything–a bit overkill, I think.

On September 30, I went to the American Embassy (the fortress on the hill, near Kali, a popular Macedonian ruin) for an in-country orientation. As one would expect, visitors have to go through a metal detector and surrender all technology: in my case, my mobile phone, a flash drive, and a small flashlight (!!!). The inside of the new embassy is really nice (what I saw of it), but I do wish that the designers could have seen fit to design the outside to fit in better with the surrounding environment. IMHO, it looks a bit intrusive.

For me, the orientation was a bit evident, given my past history here, but it never hurts to review. Also, it seems that crime is up a bit since 2004, but nothing like a similar type and size of city in the U.S. In any case, it pays to be vigilant and aware of one’s surroundings, no matter where one goes.

A puzzle: for the foreign service people, Macedonia is still considered a hardship post. I’m not sure why; I certainly don’t want for anything. I may not be able to find everything I would find in the states, but, on the other hand, I can find items here that are but just a dream (or too expensive) back home, such as Geverik and powdered vanilla soy milk. So it’s just a trade off.
Classes (Website: MsSiegel.com)

My classes started the 28th with Academic Writing; it’s a large class (about 30 students) which meets at 4:20 p.m. on Mondays. It’s a bit like the old Freshman Composition, but at a much slower pace (given that English is a second language). The entire semester will be devoted to writing letters (business letters–imagine that!) and article summaries. It’s a set curriculum, based on the British model of writing, which is, well, a bit different from the American model, giving new meaning to the old cliche “Two countries divided by a common language.” Given that Macedonia is striving for EU status, and, therefore, will be dealing more with Great Britain than the U.S., I will follow those guidelines, BUT I will also tell my students about some of the differences between American and British etiquette in writing letters of application to employers. I’m still finding my way around this course, and I have no syllabus, just course materials that I distribute to students. My mentor Elena Oncevska has indicated that my class will decide the pace. Still, I may develop a rough syllabus just so that my students will have an idea where we are headed.

My American Literature course (which is really African-American Literature) started on October 5, at 6:00 p.m. and will continue on Mondays at that time, EXCEPT when a holiday falls on a Monday. Then we will meet in my office on the next day (Tuesday) at 11:20 a.m. Evidently, when a class falls on a holiday, I’m supposed to negotiate an alternate meeting time with my students (my students told me this!). I have only five students in American Literature, so it was easy to find an alternate time that suited everyone. This policy has come up early in the semester because next Monday, October 11, is a holiday, a sort of Independence Day for Macedonia. I’m not sure how I’ll manage to set up an alternate time for 30 Academic Writing students, but I have been told (again, by students) that a lot of Macedonian holidays fall on Mondays, so something will eventually will have to be arranged (although next Monday, the AW people will simply have a holiday because I didn’t know). Syllabus for American Literature: about the first six weeks of reading. On the one hand, I don’t want to hit them with an impossible reading list, but I also don’t want to insult their intelligence by underestimating their abilities. This group is serious; they have enrolled in my class because they want to be there, not because they’re required. I have asked them to let me know if my expectations are too harsh or too easy. They have indicated that they want to be challenged.

I met with my Creative Writing class on Tuesday, at 1:00 p.m. I feel the most comfortable with this course and was able to develop a full (yet conditional) syllabus to distribute. I have also posted it on my website, which will help tremendously in making changes. The class, so far with eight students, meets only once a week for 90 minutes (with a five-minute break), so in-class writing could prove to be problematic. A writing task that takes about 20 minutes for native speakers of English to write, takes almost an hour for ESL writers, which I discovered when I had my students fill out a questionnaire, along with a sample essay. So I have decided to post, on the website, the writing prompts in advance–that way, they can get a head start on them. (Again, these are students who have selected this class because they want it, so they were enthusiastic about getting prompts and other materials in advance.) I have also tailored the prompts to a Macedonian audience (for example, I don’t think writing about a Ty Cobb baseball card will prompt much of anything in Macedonian writers) The first prompt is posted here.

Having the course website will be crucial, I think. My students seem to be internet savvy and have adequate internet access; most have email addresses, and nearly all of them engage in social networking (Facebook or MySpace, though I haven’t seen any evidence of Twitter yet–maybe that’s a good thing!). I’m still working on organizing the website so that it’s more intuitive and easier to navigate. I’m using the Blogger platform, which is FREE and incredibly easy and getting more sophisticated every day. Also, it’s perfect for this kind of use. For example, the “label” widget has changed since I last used it, so now I can “turn off” links to previous semesters (which my current students don’t need).

Obviously, the academic side of settling in has been the most discombobulating aspect for me; Jerry had warned me about the last minute aspect of class scheduling, but I think it’s something one has to experience first hand to really appreciate. Still, it has helped that I knew of this in advance and was able to prepare myself for not, well, feeling fully prepared.
Transportation

I have been walking just about everywhere–that first week, I had blisters on the bottom of my feet, but now they are calluses. I enjoy walking here because there is always so much to see. So far, I have taken taxis twice: once to the American Embassy for the orientation meeting and once after my evening class.

One does not need a car here. In fact, from what I have observed, a car would be more of an impediment because parking is tight and often expensive. Taxis are still cheap and buses are abundant and seem to run all the time.

I imagine that when the weather is rainy, I’ll take taxis to school, though I like walking in cold weather. One impediment to walking: carrying my books and brief case. I have solved this by using my carry-on luggage–it’s easier to pull something than carry it, although Skopje is full of barriers that one must traverse: curbs, stanchions in odd places, cars parked on sidewalks, bumpy and uneven brick and stone sidewalks, and construction (complete with open and unprotected holes in the ground). So one gets a good workout on foot.
Health Care System

Unfortunately for me, I have already been to the doctor for what has turned out to be a particularly nasty and persistent cold (I thought it was more serious because I felt so lousy for so long). From what I can tell, Macedonian doctors take a more holistic approach to medicine, even when one has a specific complaint. Unlike U.S. docs who usually concentrate on one’s specific complaint, a Macedonian doctor looks at the entire system. As a consequence, I have had a full blood work-up and physical (although I just had the same thing three months ago) and an admonition to see a dermatologist for some lesions she didn’t like. Fortunately, the blood work showed no significant anomalies and no viruses or bacteria, just a garden-variety cold and a slightly weakened immune system.

Also, getting blood work is an interesting process: in the early a.m., you get blood drawn, and then in late afternoon, you return to the doctor’s clinic, where you get the full results, line by line, even when the result is normal. Also, while I had to pay for the lab work (about $75.00), the doctor refused payment (???) because now as her patient I will have other opportunities to pay. Also, my friend Lile accompanied me, so this might have opened some doors. Who knows? Anyway, I like this doctor very much; she’s very sensitive and wanted to help me as much as possible.

Also, I have discovered a medicine that I like very much: Trachisan Lozenges. It’s “for the treatment of inflammation and infections of the oral and pharyngeal cavities” (from box). They’re mild, yet effective, not rough like some of the U.S. over-the-counter lozenges.
Writing Plans

Last time I was in Macedonia for an extended time (2004-2005), I was here as a “trailing spouse” (my husband Jerry Siegel was the Fulbrighter then), so I decided to spend my time writing a memoir. (Because writing can be such a lonely occupation, I also did some volunteer speaking at the American Corner and other organizations as well.) I wrote five days a week, about eight hours a day; by May 2005, had developed a wild 700+ page draft, which I later condensed to about 350 pages (excerpts are posted here).

Obviously, this time, I’ll have less time to write, but, nonetheless, I plan to get a head start on a novel, tentatively titled “Corpus Delicious” or “Corpus Delish.” I won’t talk too much about the book itself–I’ll just write a draft and maybe post the warty passages, either here or on a separate blog. I have had this idea in mind for the past six years (actually before I started on the memoir)–and that’s a long time for something to percolate.

Hey! The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of posting it on this blog. Why not?
Until next time, which I hope is sooner than seven days from now...

Ta, ta!

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Friday, October 2, 2009

Fulbright Year!

A Bird's Eye View of Skopje, Macedonia (2005)
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After months of preparations, I'm finally in Skopje, Macedonia, for my Fulbright year.

I had intended to post here about how I was preparing, but I could never seem to find the time. Every day was filled with some task that took a whole day, and then I was so dead tired, I'd fall into bed, this blog remaining inactive and unloved.

Now that I can sit back a bit and take a breath, I'll just outline what it takes to prepare to leave home for 10 months (or an academic year).

This may seem strange, but before I could even think of gathering what I needed, I had to do some spring cleaning because I couldn’t find the things I needed. Boring, yes, but absolutely necessary. I cleaned out old clothes and other "stuff," and my husband Jerry and I made several trips to Goodwill. We also threw out a lot of junk that wasn't worth a whole lot. We're not the neatest people in the world, but we're not quite hoarders, either, so there wasn't much emotional business associated with this task. Just a pain in the posterior.

Why do we save all this old stuff, anyway?

Beats me. American affluenza, I suppose. But when I get home next year, I'm going to be more vigilant about keeping after this spring cleaning task by donating and throwing out unwanted stuff throughout the year--not that I expect to receive another grant such as the Fulbright--I still can't quite believe it! I've never won anything major in my life before, so this feels pretty wonderful, and I'm SO grateful for this opportunity.

But I digress. After cleaning out the bedroom and living rooms, I started on my work area, by going through and culling unwanted papers, flash drives, CDs, etc. I then bought a Seagate 500 gig hard drive, about the size of a very small paperback, so that I could organize and copy my notes from years past and bring them in electronic form (I also brought some print notes, but now that I'm here and my hard and flash drives made it okay, I do believe I could have easily skipped this step, although they are nice to have, just in case of computer and internet meltdowns, which do occur occasionally).

My entire home hard drive files are on this Seagate, plus I have added additional notes from various CDs that I have saved from flash drives past. This step took an incredibly long time but well worth it. Given the Balkan way (and this is not a criticism, just an observation) of waiting until the last minute to create the class schedule, I wasn't sure what I would be teaching, so I brought all my notes in electronic form. Although my Fulbright award is for Creative Writing, I also knew that I might be asked to teach other courses (and I was right--more on this in a later post).

I created a special space for a box labeled “For Macedonia,” where I could toss items to take, such as European plugs, a European surge protector (from our last stay), gifts for friends and colleagues, peanut butter, and other small amenities. So that when I would finally get around to packing, these things would be all together and ready to go.

I also organized and cleaned out my book shelves; I had a lot of books I no longer needed, but that could do some good in the department library at Cyril and Methodious, so along with the books I bought with my book budget (Thank you, Fulbright, for such a generous budget), I packed up three boxes and sent them along. I'm pretty sure I maxed out the weight limit for each box, but I wanted to save one of my allotted boxes for later, just in case. However, my book budget is shot. I decided to use some of my budget to buy a laptop, a scanner, and printer for my use while I'm here, and then to donate to my department after I leave. Evidently, I have made the right decision, because my chair's eyes lit up when I told him my plan. He said, "We definitely need a department laptop and scanner." Money is tight here, and public higher education is run on a shoestring, so the Fulbrighters can really help here, and I'm glad to do what I can.

I also had to cull through food and staples. Jerry arrives on October 14, but I didn't want to leave this onerous task for him. Well, it wasn't that bad because I tend not to leave food around anyway. But I did want to get rid of anything that would expire during the year and to clean out the freezer (by eating this stuff throughout the summer and tossing the "lurking" crap away, like green beans from 2007--ugh! What’s up with that, anyway?). I also put staples into jars (sugar, salt, oatmeal, etc.) and other airtight containers. Jerry has promised to eat down or toss the freezer foodstuffs before October 14 and not buy anything other than the bare essentials. He will fill the freezer with containers of water; I read somewhere that a full freezer is more efficient than an empty one, so once the water freezes, it will be full.

We also went through medications, such as prescriptions and OTC stuff and got rid of anything that was expired. No sense is keeping that junk around and, perhaps, accidentally ingesting it next year.

Once everything was cleared away and culled, I packed my winter clothes first and set that suitcase aside. It made sense to first organize the clothes I didn't need right away, given that I was currently wearing my warm weather clothes. I then packed books and other media that I would need right away, and packed extra underwear and clothes in the nooks and crannies. I did have to repack one suitcase entirely because of weight issues--the darn thing weighed 56 pounds, way over United Airlines 50-pound limit per suitcase. Books weigh so much; I look forward to the day when all books are readily available in electronic form because that would help emerging countries like Macedonia.

I waited until the last minute to pack my warm weather clothes (two days before I left). I figured that I would be packing about two weeks worth, just like one would do for a vacation. Other stuff from the Macedonian box, like peanut butter, sprinkle-style artificial sweetner, and a water filter pitcher--concessions to bringing the U.S. with me--I wrapped in my clothes. What didn’t fit in one of my three suitcases stayed behind, and Jerry will bring some of it on the 14th.

While I was organizing all these physical details, I also had to organize bills and update a book that I keep for household business (who we pay and when, wills, passport photocopies, insurance, etc.), one copy to take and one to leave behind for family, just in case of emergency. I also had to create a sheet for log-ins and passwords (coded, of course). I also had to bring my domaining business to a place where I would not have to renew domains while overseas--I still check my accounts, however. These tasks sucked up a lot of time; if one could just leave the U.S. business behind, getting ready would be a breeze, but when you have a household and cars to consider, you still have to pay bills and take care of U.S. business.

For anyone going abroad for an extended period of time, I recommend that you start your household and business updates MONTHS earlier than I did--I literally was finishing up the night before I left, and I probably left some things left undone. As soon as you find out you will be going abroad, begin with the household stuff immediately; it’s a dreadful job, and one needs to take breaks from it. Besides, one can work on various preparations simultaneously. These multiple tasks are inevitable, so just dig in.

In addition to my academic files on the Seagate and my flash drives, I brought the following software:

–An extra copy of a Norton Security CD with a new key, given that my installed Norton expires in April 2010.

–A Word Perfect CD (which I prefer over MS Word; documents are easily converted to Word)

–Adobe CD (I like to do electronic art; also makes scanning 100% easier)

–Microsoft Office CD (which I bought specifically for the computer and will leave behind)

–Scanner CD (which will be donated to the department).
I brought the following hardware:

–A 16-inch Toshiba laptop, which I included (with peripherals) in my carry-on luggage. It was a total pain going through security, but I wanted a computer with a large screen. It’s one thing to work on a netbook for two weeks, quite another for 10 months. Definitely worth the extra effort. Given that this computer will be donated, I won’t have to worry about dragging it back. (By the way, one can buy laptops here, but they are still very expensive.)

–A Canon scanner, a VERY nice machine and FAST. I did discover, however, that scanners are available here and are about the same price as in the U.S., but I don’t know about their quality. I packed the scanner in my regular luggage and hoped for the best. It made it in good form–I packed it very well and “locked” it (a nice Canon feature) for the bouncy trip across the ocean.

–A MagicJack, along with a an American-style phone. This device is great; I have a U.S. phone number (with unlimited domestic long distance). This differs from Skype, in that my family can call me using a regular telephone, and I can call their telephones directly. Of course, when they call me, I have to be online, but when I call them, they need not be online. I still have Skype, which is great for video calling, but not so great for getting in touch with less computer savvy relatives. I brought a long telephone cord (with a connector) so that I could carry the phone to other parts of the flat. I carried the MagicJack device (which is slightly larger than a regular flash drive) in my purse and packed the phone in my regular luggage. It made the trip just fine. You also don’t need the telephone. You can dial from the keyboard and use a headset/microphone (with a phone plug-in), but you know what? That telephone is quite nice and feels a bit like home. I’ll donate that phone as well; from what I can tell, a U.S. phone works here as a regular phone (my office at the university has an American-style phone plugged directly into the wall).

–A power USB hub, capable of handling 220 current. If I have any complaints about my laptop, it would be the lack of USB ports. In addition, it seems that power hubs add a maximum of four ports (minus one if you count the one the hub plugs into).
I bought a printer in country, an HP all-in-one. While the printer was inexpensive, the ink replacements are not. My plan is to keep print copying to a bare minimum and use local print shops for photocopying/duplicating.

In addition to books, media, and notes, I also brought my medical records and proof of medical insurance. The Fulbright Commission required complete physicals for both me and my husband, and once we were approved, sent back our doctor’s reports to us–very practical. Proof of insurance is mandatory for just about any country.

This entire process took me over three months; I probably should have started sooner. I must admit that I felt rushed. But I’m here, so all’s well that ends well.