Friday, October 9, 2009

First Two Weeks in Skopje--More of a "Settling in" Kind of Post


Our Dining Room


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:

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.

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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