Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the globe continent in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from Peace Corps countries all around the world!. This week, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from Macedonia.
Rebekah Brown – Age 27
Where are you from?
I’m from Pennsylvania.
What country and program do you serve in?
I serve in Macedonia in the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) program.
I work in a primary school in a village called Orizari. I work with first through ninth grades, but from the five-year-olds to the fifteen-year-olds, I hear a chorus of “hello” whenever I walk down the hallway or see them in the village. I love that. I work with three English teachers at my school, co-planning, assisting with lessons and supporting after school activities in any way I can. Right now, we’re preparing for the National Spelling Bee, which was started by Volunteers. I’m also planning to start an English Club.
Outside of school, I’m a communications coordinator with GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) Macedonia. I can’t speak highly enough of the work of these clubs and camps around the world, empowering the young women of the future. We also just launched a Peace Corps Macedonia Instagram page (@PeaceCorpsMacedonia) and I’m part of the team running it. We’re posting one photo each day of volunteer life in Macedonia with #365MAK.
What is your housing like? What amenities do/n’t you have? What are some of the biggest challenges of your lifestyle?
All Volunteers in Macedonia begin service with a host family, and for me that’s just my host mom. She has two adult daughters who periodically visit. Normally, it’s just the two of us and a cat named Julie, who lives outside.
We have electricity, water, and all the essentials, including a good internet connection, but there isn’t central heat. We depend on a woodstove in the kitchen, which heats that room and the adjoining living room, but not much else. I sleep in my sleeping bag under a pile of blankets and use an electric heater sparingly because electricity is expensive. The woodstove also provides our hot water, so no fire means no warm water for bathing. We have a washing machine, but hang our clothes outside to dry. (All my neighbors saw my undies within a week of moving here. So, there’s that.) The lack of heat was tough this winter. Temperatures were much colder at my home in Pennsylvania, but homes aren’t insulated here, so when it’s cold outside, it’s cold inside. My mom could see my breath while we skyped on several occasions, and that wasn’t uncommon during the colder days.
Other than the heat, learning to cook and bake with a woodstove has been an interesting adventure. How many logs will preheat to 350? How many to bring water to a boil? I’m a vegetarian and I was nervous when I first arrived about a very meat and potatoes culture, but my host family during training and my host mom now have been quite accommodating. Sometimes there has been a lack of understanding about what being a vegetarian means. I’ve been served a plate piled with salty cheese as an alternative to the meat entrée others are eating. I cook meals for myself now that I’m at site and I utilize the seasonal vegetables from the market. I’ve eaten more cabbage in six months than I’ve eaten in my lifetime. I’m looking forward to the summer crops.
Popular food: burek, a flaky pastry filled with cheese or meat and often served with drinkable yogurt; ajvar, a traditional pepper spread; tomato, cucumber and salty, white cheese salad; a baked bean dish called gravche; and bread in general. Bread is served with nearly every meal, and eaten with salty, white cheese and ajvar; it’s a bite of happiness.
What are Macedonians like?
One of the best parts of Macedonia is the culture of hospitality. The people have been warm, welcoming, and generous and they are always prepared for a guest, whether or not they’ve invited anyone. If someone stops by, it only takes a few moments before water is boiling for Turkish coffee and snacks are on the table. People love to sit and chat and when you meet someone new, they may ask where you’re from, if you’re married, and about your family before they even catch your name. A popular phrase here is Има време, which translates to, “there is time.” It’s a slower paced world than I’m used to, but I appreciate that.
The unemployment rate here hovered around 30 percent the last time I saw statistics on it. Many young people go to college abroad or move away from home for better work opportunities. A lot of people want for jobs, but they’re also very industrious. Yards are for gardens and there are a lot of jack-of-all-trade types. My host father during training took a car engine apart in the driveway one day. The next he was chopping all the wood that would heat their home for the winter. This was after breaking down the garden that covered nearly every inch of their small yard. The gender roles are typically traditional, especially with the older generations. That is less apparent with the younger generations.
Geographically, Macedonia is about the size of Vermont. It’s a landlocked country in the Balkans. The population is about two million people. The Republic of Macedonia is part of the former Yugoslavia, and hopes to someday be a part of the European Union.
Macedonia has the most beautiful flag in the world, and our Peace Corps staff is the greatest.
What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service?
As a TEFL volunteer, I get excited every time I see a student connecting with a lesson or getting excited about class. My second graders had really poor homework completion, so my counterpart and I made a homework chart to track their progress. Now the students check the chart every day to count who has the most stars in their column. It’s the little things. I’ve also really enjoyed connecting with my students outside of class while preparing for the national spelling bee. They’re enthusiasm is incredible.
Outside of school, just the generosity of the people has astounded me. I missed a bus a few months ago after misreading the schedule. The attendant at the station called the bus driver, who pulled over and waited for me. He then directed a cab driver where to take me and negotiated a fair price for me. In the U.S., the attendant would have said, “Who’s next in line?”
What have been some of your greatest challenges?
The challenges here are like in any country – adjusting to a new culture, less privacy, missing home, missing life events, learning a new language, and learning your role in the workplace. I think finding a balance between independent time and time spent in my community and with my family has been tough. I never realized how much “me time” I needed before. Thinking in another language can be mentally exhausting. I also have a tough time feeling like what I’m doing is helpful sometimes, but I think that’s pretty common in our first year. I’ve also found very few people who are my age, so making friends has been interesting.
Has PC service met/surpassed/trample don your expectations of what service would be like?
One of the things I heard the most when I started training was that everyone’s experience is different. At this point, I’m sure what I expected it to be like. There were a lot of unknowns. I think Peace Corps often connotes images of huts in some small African village. I live in the Balkans in Eastern Europe. I have WiFi, but donkey carts also pass me on my walk to school. The school is heated with a wood stove, but my students all have cell phones. That dichotomy has been interesting to process. I guess I’m still figuring out the answer to this question. I’ve been in country for six months.
The gender roles here are more traditional, but I think that presents itself more so in the villages and in the Albanian communities. Coffee bars are a big thing here and it’s not uncommon for one to be filled entirely with men, who all stare at you as you walk by. The staring took some adjusting. I’m the only one I’ve ever seen running in my village. I think that’s doubly strange for some because I’m a woman who runs. My host mom tells people I’m her American daughter — a vegetarian who likes to run. She gives them the highlight reel of how I contrast most people here. She also told me that I’m only allowed to have female visitors at home because the neighbors, and subsequently the whole village, would talk if I were entertaining male guests.
On a final note: being a volunteer can be really weird and really wonderful, sometimes at the same time. I keep a journal where I write one positive thing every day, even if it’s just that the day is over. One of my students asked me last week if I have ever seen Justin Bieber. (No.) A note to fellow PCVS: When we found out that PCVs in Jordan were evacuated last week, one of the volunteers here had a great idea to create a video to show our support. She was evacuated from Ukraine and Peace Corps Moldova did something similar for them, which really touched her. Check it out and feel free to send along your own love from your branch of the Peace Corps family.
Why did you join Peace Corps? Looking back, do those reasons still apply to you now?
It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and I didn’t want to look back someday and wonder, “what if?” I wanted to learn about a new culture, learn about myself, have an adventure, push myself to grow, and hopefully positively impact my country of service. I think those things are all still true.
Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government?
Absolutely. There are the obvious benefits, like cultural exchange, skills transfer, and projects, but I think the best part of being a volunteer is being a point of reference for someone, whether that is in America or your country of service. When I was in high school, we had an exchange student from Sweden. I know very little about Sweden, but I think of it fondly remembering my friend. It will be the same for my friends in America when they hear Macedonia now. Hopefully it will be the same for my Macedonian friends when they think of America.
We’re giving people around the world a positive memory and association. If we do nothing else, I think adding more positivity to the world is a huge success.
If you had to give a piece of advice to someone thinking about applying to PC or getting ready for staging, what would you say?
First, pack more Reese’s Pieces. You think you enough, but you’re probably going to need more. Also, know that you can’t hit pause on the lives of all your friends and family back home. (Trust me, I tried.) You’re going to miss weddings and birthdays and babies and life events and that sucks, but the people who love you will be there when you get back, ready to pick up where you left off. Also, just be open. Everyone’s experience really is their own. It is what you make of it, so make it awesome.
Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
Right now that’s hard to say. I’ve worked in journalism and education, but I’m not sure where I see myself after the Peace Corps yet. I recently asked a friend if she knew of any post-graduate programs majoring in brunch. So, that could be big.
Want to read more about Rebekah’s life in Macedonia? Check out her blog!