As Lori mentioned in her earlier post, I had the opportunity to go to the Strumica Carnival during the last weekend in February. The event is truly one-of-a-kind. But before I talk about the actual festival, I’d like to tell you about a couple experiences I had in Macedonian hospitality earlier that day.
It was Saturday, and because there’s an extremely limited bus schedule here in DK, I was forced to take the 8 A.M.. On my way to the bus station, the local baker (whom we had visited the day before) saw me and called for me to step into the bakery for a moment. The conversation went as follows (but in Macedonian):
Doncho: Hey! You’re headed to Strumica right?
Me: Yeah, I’m taking the bus at eight.
Doncho: You’re going to be staying overnight there right?
Doncho: Well how can you travel without some bread?
So he handed me a loaf and sent me on my way saying, “You’ll have to tell me all about it when you get back!”
Taking the bus at 8 A.M. was nice because I arrived in Strumica around nine. Unfortunately, I couldn’t meet up with Dale (the volunteer I would be staying with) until three. I tried contacting the other volunteer in Strumica but had no luck. Let’s face it, 9 A.M. is early for volunteers. So, despite the fact that I was loaded down with a change of clothes, a bottle of wine (the customary nagosti gift in DK), my camera case, and a loaf of bread, I decided to walk around the city a bit.
From the main square I could just make out the white spires of a nearby church. Since they’re usually quite beautiful inside, I thought I’d head there. It was clear, as I walked the streets, that the festivities had started the night before. As I ascended the hill towards the church I spotted an old ruin. It was quite large and looked to be very old. I tried to get a closer look, but there was no access from the street. Everyone who lived around it had commandeered a section which they then used to serve as part of the foundation for their own buildings. I guess it’s true that they don’t make things like they used to.
Along the way to the church, I ran into a group of street sweepers cleaning up from the previous night. I asked if I could take their picture to which they obliged. As I cracked off a few shots, they asked me where I was from, what I was doing in Strumica, and what Peace Corps was.
Then, they asked if I wanted to grab a drink with them (non-alcoholic). Since this is very customary, and I had nothing else to do, I said, “yes”. Now, I was under the impression that we would go to a кафич (kafeech) and all grab a cup of coffee together. Yet, before I knew it one of the sweepers had stepped inside a продавница (prodavnitsa) and came back out with a bottle of coke and some candy which he promptly handed to me. He then explained that aside from the old church there was also an old mosque nearby and some old fortifications as well. Both he said, would be great for picture-taking.
As I thought back on the events of the day thus far, I was at once in awe, and inspired. In the case of the street sweepers, I had met them randomly on the street. These are men who make right around $100/month, requiring them to work several jobs. Yet, it was unthinkable for them to allow me to visit their city without giving me something to eat and drink.
When we swear in as Peace Corps volunteers, we commit ourselves to three goals:
- Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
- Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
- Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
Almost everyone who thinks about Peace Corps focuses on goal one. Even most volunteers, when assessing their success, measure themselves only according to this goal. It’s the American in us all. We want to see stuff happen, and we want it yesterday. Yet, without question, the other two are equally important, and while success in these areas is much harder to see, it is often more rewarding.
And so, by telling you about my Strumica trip, by writing this blog, Lori and I are striving to achieve goal three. And, by visiting Doncho in the bakery, by taking time to talk with the street sweepers, we hope to achieve goal two.
On that Saturday, Doncho and the street sweepers did more as ambassadors of their country…of their culture, than even the best diplomat could hope to.
Oops. Looks like I forgot to talk about the carnival. Well I guess you’ll just have to wait for the next post.
The weekend of February 25th and 26th is a holiday in this part of the world. It is called Прочка, meaning “Forgiveness Day”. It marks the last Sunday before the “Great Lent“. The younger generations visit their elders, grandparents and relatives, where they ask for forgiveness for any wrongdoings they have done in the last year. Then, they kiss the back of the person’s hand for a sign of repentance, and, in return, they are given a coin or two (or three, depending on how much your grandparents like you!). This holiday typically involves feasting, and there are often carnivals and festivals during this time. Strumica, a city about an hour away from where we live, holds an annual carnival celebrating Forgiveness Day where everyone in attendance wears costumes or masks. It is one of the largest festivals held in Macedonia every year. Aaron was able to attend the carnival and visited many other Peace Corps Volunteers who were also in town for the festivities.
On a more local level, I have come to know this holiday as the week of baklava. Baklava is a traditional dessert, originating from Turkey. With numerous layers of very thin dough (now-a-days they use phyllo dough), nuts and syrup, it is very sweet and delicious. This dessert is traditionally made by everyone for Forgiveness Day. It is given to neighbors, family members, and apparently, Peace Corps Volunteers. I have eaten many varieties of this tasty treat, and all in one weeks’ time. There is the traditional baklava with a hint of lemon, then some have coconut, dried fruit, poppy seeds, white chocolate and milk chocolate pieces in them. The chocolate variations, were by far my favorite. I ate baklava at home, at school and at the winery where we have an English class. And, I believe I have tasted the works of at least ten different bakers. This is one dessert that I will definitely need to try my hand at sometime. Maybe in a month or two once I have fully recovered from the week of baklava.