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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Catch You Later!

It’s been quite awhile since my last posting which detailed the eighth grader’s prom. I never had the opportunity to closeout my blog, detailing my last few days before my departure from Probistip and three days later, Macedonia. I have been readjusting to life in the USA and have found it very difficult get motivated to sit down and write. Perhaps my hernia surgery, my son’s wedding, my wife’s rehab from hip replacement surgery, the performance of deferred maintenance to my house and yard, and the cleanup of trees and branches lost to an early snow. I must now close out this blog, writing for the first time as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.

I have been away from my Macedonian friends for almost seven months but it seems just like yesterday when I was saying good-bye to them. It was difficult to say farewell but it was tempered by the realization that I will return to see them in the future. I still communicate with some of them with weekly Skypes and e-mails and keep in touch with what’s currently going on the town with David the PCV, who has taken up residence in “my” apartment. It will be impossible to get the Macedonian culture out of my thinking and way of viewing and analyzing life in America, not that I want to. I have an extremely difficult time not always making comparisons between the two cultures when I’m with my family. I can see them wince whenever I begin a sentence with, “In Macedonia …”. I’m getting better at keeping my reflections to myself.

The beauty of Macedonia is paralyzing. Thank goodness I have lots of photos to assist me in remembering my journeys throughout the country.

During my last days in The Probe, some of my friends put together a little going away party at the Dublin Pub. (There seems to be an Irish Pub in every town. They don’t play Irish music and in Probistip don’t have a special menu or serve Irish beer but the “Pub” has a nice ambiance). My friends presented me with a few going away gifts, one of which was a scythe which I was going to get for myself anyway. (You’re probably asking yourself why would I want a scythe. It’s a long story so I won’t go into details here). We had a nice time.

The Director of Nikola Karev School presented me with a copper plaque replica of the school flag that was designed as a result of my suggestion that it would be nice to have a school flag to display. Aleksandra found a local artisan to create the work of art. It’s really beautiful. (You can view a picture of it on by clicking on My Albums at the top of this page).

Many of the students at the school expressed disappointment that I would no longer be in their classroom and a visible presence around town. They asked me to please stay and questioned me when I would return. I got lots of hugs and many of them wanted a photo of us together. My fellow PCV, Photoimage Guy, took some pictures of some of them and I promised the students I would post them on my last blog.

Short and Sweet: My Peace Corps experience was an adventure of a lifetime. I was involved in the day –to-day lives of ordinary citizens in a culture much different than our American way of life. I was in a place where age and experience are respected, which gave me the opportunity to share my observations with individuals who could implement change. I worked with a counterpart who loved to try new ideas in the classroom and had an open door policy with the officials in the municipality.

I know I earned the respect of the people who knew me or of me and I take pleasure in knowing that generations from now, someone , somewhere in Macedonia will ask the question, “Remember Michael, the American, when he….?” I accomplished many of my goals while serving, but as the saying goes, “I got much more out of the experience than I put into it?” Thank you, people of Macedonia.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Prom

As in many schools in the USA and probably world-wide, the 8th graders had their Prom to celebrate their completion of studies at the primary level. Next year most would be studying at the high school here in Probistip, some taking the college route and others taking the vocational route. Some students would opt to go to schools in Stip or Skopje or some other city in Macedonia.

The Prom was a well-anticipated event, as expected, and the students talked about it for months prior to the scheduled evening. Many girls made their own dresses and were extremely fashionable in their choice of attire. Not unlike the girls in the States, their selections were influenced by television, movies and fashion magazines. The boys dressed in their finest which for a 14/15 year old boy meant sans suit or tie – Prom casual we would call it. The students didn’t come as boy/girl couples, only as classmates, so 100% of the graduating class attended.

A crowd of onlookers gathered outside the hotel where the event was being held to watch the 72 bedazzling students arrive. In Macedonia, the 6:00 PM arrival time on the invitations meant that things would begin to get started at 6:45 and such was the case when the photographers began taking photos and videos to record this cherished event. Many of the students seeing that I had my camera, asked to pose for pictures, some of which I posted on this blog.

When the photo session was over, everyone moved inside to their tables. The band then began playing dance music so that everyone could begin dancing the Oro, the traditional Macedonia dance. The thing about the Oro is that it goes on forever, in this case 90 minutes. The songs change but the dance steps remain basically the same. Almost every student danced and sang for the 90 minutes before the main course was served. And credit to the band which enthusiastically played the whole time. Meanwhile, salads and beverages were on the tables.

After the main course, the Director and the three home room teachers presented awards to the most outstanding students. They also recognized two staff members who had retired the past year and they presented me with a beautiful oil painting (still wet) of Lee and me done by several of the students.

Then the music turned “modern” and the students danced and sang to every song for another 90 minutes. They knew the words to every song and unabashedly sang along while they danced. I had the opportunity to show off some of my dance moves that I had picked up over the course of time and the students and staff were duly (or dully) impressed (the letter “L” makes a big difference here).

The evening ended around midnight and I was told many of the students continued the festivities on the plaza until about 2AM, despite having class the next morning at 7:15. Surprisingly (to me) most of students did come to school, even though it was a challenge, I’m sure, to wake up. Those that brought a USB were able to get a copy of all my photos to post on their FaceBook site, if they were so inclined.

It was a very well-planned and very well-executed Prom. The students’ behavior was exemplary. There were no fights and no cliques and no one left out of the activities. The students really enjoyed each other’s company. Well done! Well done! (Be sure to check out the photos.)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Stuff on SharePoint

This blog is mainly FYI to the PCV’s in Macedonia, both TEFL and CD. My Close of Service (COS) is rapidly approaching. It’s hard to believe that I have been in-country now for almost 33 months. I thought it would be a good idea to make my fellow volunteers aware of some of the resources that I have posted/will post on the Peace Corp’s SharePoint site. Regardless of whether they are a TEFL or involved in Community Development, some of the material regarding Secondary Project ideas or Networking may prove to be useful. I presented a portion of the material at the MAK 15 In-Service Training in April.

Posted on SharePoint-Macedonia is a Power Point Presentation (PPP) in Macedonian and English (M&E) on “Why Our Students Need Dictionaries” that I presented to the School Superintendent and Director in my attempts to convince them that a dictionary is an essential tool in learning a language. There is a PPP in English and Macedonian entitled, “Are our Students Eating Well” that I put together to point out the poor breakfast eating habits of many Macedonian school children and the detrimental effects of drinking sugared drinks and the causes of osteoporosis. Both of them resulted in the Superintendent taking some positive steps in addressing both issues.

Also posted is a PPP presentation, “A Classroom Teacher’s Expectations” in both Macedonian and English that we used at the beginning of the school year to educate our students on expected classroom behavior. It proved to be a very effective tool in reducing classroom management problems. The students adjusted their behavior patterns once they knew and practiced them. We occasionally review the presentation with the students to reinforce what they already know and may have “forgotten”.

There is a Fire Drill Checklist (M&E) that I put together which delineates the responsibilities of the fire chief, the school director, and the classroom teacher when planning and conducting a building evacuation plan. Fire drills in schools are unheard of in my community, so this checklist helped convince some officials to address the issue of a safe school evacuation as well as insuring that exits at indoor public gatherings are unlocked and unblocked during events.

There are a few posters in Macedonian that we designed and posted around the school to educate staff and students as to the proper way to “Cough and Cover”; Stop, Drop and Roll; and on how to conduct the Heimlich Maneuver. There is also a poster on limiting the amount of sugared drinks and the fact there are 13 teaspoons of sugar in half liter bottle of cola. These posters proved to be effective tool in bringing about an awareness of these topics. Why not conduct a town-wide campaign?

There is a PPP, Sowing Seeds, Successful Practices, that shares the successful strategies and resources that my counterpart, Alexandra, and I were able to implement in the classroom. Some of them enabled us to challenge the more advanced English Language students and some of them enabled us to provide alternative materials for the students who need more time to learn. The presentation contains only visuals (it was produced with the idea that I would explain each slide) but for the most part, the slides can be understood.

There are copies of three different classic stories that were adapted for reading by multiple students or for casting a play. They were adapted by a friend of mine classicacts.net so she should be sent a courtesy e-mail (crmgates@comcast.net) if the material is used in a public performance. She has given her permission for in-classroom reading to Peace Corps Volunteers in Macedonia. The adaptations make the readings fun and understandable for TEFL students.

There is a chart (M&E) that summarizes the amount of class time spent each year by teachers completing the required information in the Dnevnik (The Big Red Book) and the amount of time students wait while it is being completed. I shared it with the teachers and the director at Nlkola Karev and they were somewhat amazed about how much teaching time is lost over the course of the year.

There is a reference page to a software program that can be used by those responsible for completing the class and teacher’s schedules at the beginning of the school. We installed the program at our school and it saved countless hours of pencil/eraser adjustments. The program contains algorithms that can modify the entire schedule when the most minor change needs to be made.

I noticed when I first started observing the students in the classroom, that when a discussion was being held on any given topic, that it was quite common for more than one person at a time to be speaking, that comments were interjected while someone was trying to make a point, and that the noise level made the entire discussion quite chaotic. There is now a poster on the wall regarding “Rules for Conducting a Classroom Discussion”. We point to it when discussions begin to get noisy to remind the class, but it’s not always followed.

There is a memo “Suggestions for Managing Student Behavior” that I shared with the school Director and some of the teachers. It briefly discusses the need for students and staff to know what the school rules are, that they must be consistently enforced by all the teacher, and that there must be consequences for failure to follow the rules. These suggestions might seem obvious, but my observations proved otherwise. The school director addressed the issue.

There is a file “Games For English Class” that I put in PDF booklet format. I just copied a file that was already in the Peace Corps online library and repackaged it. Most of the English language teachers in Probistip have used it.

There is a PPP on “A Model Classroom” that illustrates the approaches that Alexandra and I took to turn our classroom, an unused chemistry lab, into a classroom that has the tools and the environment to more effectively teach English.

Finally, there is a file “The Best PE Games in America” which has the rules for Kickball, Speedball, Capture the Flag, Knockout and Ultimate Frisbee. I translated the rules into Macedonian (with a LITTLE help from my tutor) and distributed them to all the PE teachers in town and primary class teachers at Nikola Karev. The students loved the games when we played them during my after-school sports program but the PE teacher here seems reluctant to introduce any new activity in his classes. Maybe someday.

(No pictures attached to this blog)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Michael Had a Little Lamb

I missed having lamb for the past three Easters, so two weeks ago I questioned one of my friends as to why it was so difficult to find lamb at the meat markets in Probistip. After all, there’s sheep all over place. “Well in Probistip, we don’t eat lamb” was the answer. I didn’t pursue the answer to the question “Why?”. I’ve learned there probably wouldn’t be a logical answer that would satisfy me as a person from outside the Balkans. In the western part of Macedonia there there is a large Albanian (Muslim) population and pork is not eaten and hence, lamb and beef are everywhere. Probistip is in the northeastern part of the country (mostly Orthodox Christian) and pork and chicken are the meats of choice, the only choice, at least here in Probistip.

So answer in answer to my question of “how could we get some lamb”, my friend Darko replied, “we could go to one of the villages and buy a lamb.” I had been thinking, like maybe a leg or some chops, but a whole lamb? Pressured by my craving for lamb, as well as my curiosity as to how we were going to pull this off, I said “OK, let’s do it?”

Darko put a plan together and its execution began on a rainy Sunday evening. He and his father picked me up in their family Yugo and we drove about 12 kilometers to one of the villages where a person could buy a lamb. Crammed in the back of the Yugo for the journey, I wondered how I was going to share such limited space with a lamb who probably wasn’t going to be too cooperative in such a new environment as the backseat of a Yugo with someone who wasn’t even from his village or for that matter, his country.

When we arrived in Stubol, we had to wait a little while for the return of the shepherd from the pastures with the flock. After penning up the sheep, the owner of the flock (the shepherds are hired hands) went into the pen and picked out our future dinner, secured his legs and weighed him on a scale that had probably not been calibrated to any standard weight for a half a century or more. The rain soaked, dirt covered lamb (the lamb’s wool looked nothing like the pure white lamb’s wool that appears in children’s books) weighed in at 19 kilograms (42 lbs.).

My newly purchased (@ $60) lamb was then put into the trunk of the Yugo (I was relieved I didn’t have to share the back seat) and we proceeded to the village of Old Probistip, where awaiting us would be the local butcher to perform Step 2 of Darko’s plan. Darko and I didn’t want to watch the actual throat slitting, so we waited until the task was completed and then entered the garage to watch Ruman do his thing. Every internal organ (intestines, stomach, liver, kidneys, head) was excised and cleaned to be used in some local dish. There was no waste. The gutted lamb was left whole and not cut up into the usual parts that I am familiar with – chops and legs.

Step 3 involved taking my lamb (now weighing 9 kilograms or 19 lbs), to Darko’s sister’s home where freezer space was made available. Step 4 took place the following Friday when the frozen lamb was removed from the freezer in preparation for Step 5A, baking the lamb in the oven at the local bread factory where Kire was a supervisor, on Saturday morning. We figured there would be enough lamb for about 8 people, so the guest list for our picnic included some of the regulars at our weekly English conversation group. David, John (a visiting friend of David’s who had been in the Peace Corps in 1964), Goran, Clavche, Kire, Anita, Darko and me made it onto the guest list.

Step 5B was the actual eating of the lamb. Darko and Goran selected a site that was set up for picnics up in the mountain alongside the Zletevo River. We purchased all the makings of a salad and some mushrooms while I brought rakija from Negotino, cigars, homemade cinnamon buns and marshmallows to roast (marshmallows are unknown in Probistip and I thought it would be fun to introduce toasting marshmallows to my friends. Lee had brought them for me on her recent trip.) Others brought the wine, beer, bread, water, soda utensils and plates. We also brought the horseshoes.

We piled into a combi (a large van) that we had hired (500 denari round trip for $6) in front of the bakery at noon and headed up the mountain. The location was unbelievable and very isolated. The owner of the property charges 50 denari ($1) for each person using the fully equipped campsite.

The lamb turned out to be the best I ever ate and I had enough to keep me happy for a long time. We had an enjoyable afternoon. I learned the proper way to prepare lamb from scratch while my friends learned how to toast marshmallows, appreciate an after-dinner cigar, and recreate with a game of horseshoes.

Check out the annotated photos for a much better perspective on the joys of living here in Macedonia.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Quiet Visit

My wife Lee was here until the 7th of May, having arrived here on the 4th of April for her last visit to Macedonia with me as a Peace Corps Volunteer. We definitely plan to return for visits with our Macedonian friends and to breathe in the breathtaking scenery that is everywhere. I’ll be able to drive so that we won’t have to spend so much time on buses and taxis, although it’s very easy to travel around the country via public transportation if time is not an issue. We kind of just hung around Probistip, visiting friends, hanging out at the cafes when the weather permitted, watching a movie or two in the evening after dinner. During a Volunteer’s last three months of service, they are not permitted to take out-of-country-vacation days. This didn’t bother me because I had no desire to travel outside of Macedonia.

We were invited to the wedding reception of our friend Jasmina’s brother. It was a wonderful event and we learned first hand how Macedonians celebrate such an important event. It was so much like the traditional wedding reception in the USA. There was lots of food, lots of drink, lots of loud music, and lots of laughter. We sat at a table with some people who spoke English, so we were able to ask lots of questions about marriage customs and traditions.

Lee’s best friend Peg, came for a four-day visit. During her stay we visited the various neighborhoods of Probistip and were escorted by my friend Goran to Kratevo, Lesnovo and Zletevo where we took in the sites offered in these very old villages. We introduced Peg to many traditional Macedonian foods. She seemed to enjoy them. On the 7th of May, the ladies took off in a taxi to Durres in Albania, with a day stop in Bitola, where they caught an 11PM overnight ferry to Italy for a 10 day holiday.

On a somber note, two young men and a high school girl from Probistip were killed in two separate auto accidents during the last few weeks. I also know two families in town who lost teenagers in motor vehicle accidents several years ago. Excessive speed was the cause in each incidence. The road conditions and the age of the vehicles probably have every parent worrying when their teenage children go out a car.

The eighth graders at school have basically shut down, making teaching a little more challenging. They all know that they will move on to the high school next September, regardless of their final grades, so there is little chance of motivating them at this point in time. Graduation, Prom Night, class pictures, and the spring field trip have taken over as the major interests of the eighth graders. To make matters worse, the internet at the school either doesn’t work or when a connection is made, it functions so slowly, that using the computers is no longer a choice. There is no IT person on the staff to resolve problems, so the computers lay idle while the Internet provider continues to be paid monthly.

As I am writing this blog, the students have only 18 days of school left and I have only 28 days left in Probistip, 31 days in Macedonia. I am beginning to finalize the last of my projects and submit copies of them to the Peace Corps’s SharePoint website where other volunteers can check them out for ideas that they may find to be helpful in their communities.

Friday, April 29, 2011


It’s a sunny spring weekend morning and I’m walking back to my apartment after taking a little sojourn around the town. I come upon two young girls who always greet me with smiles and a “Hello Michael!”. Neither of them are in my classes and for that matter, don’t even attend the school where I teach.

One of the girls is carrying a few sprigs of lilacs that she had collected. I mentioned how pretty they were and asked her if I could smell them. She held them up. I sniffed and commented how wonderful they smelled. In response, she handed them to me and told me, "For you!". The smile on her face grew when I accepted them. As we parted I could see that, happy as I was to receive them, she was truly even happier to have given them to me.


N.B. Don't forget to check out the accompanying pictures!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

That Which Is Good

Probistip got more snow this March (5 cm.) than the entire rest of the winter. It was definitely the mildest of the three winters I have spent here in the northeast part of the country. We still get some cold and very windy days, but spring is slowly making an appearance.

As I predicted in a previous blog, I had some difficulty convincing the School Manager at the Municipality to allow me to conduct a workshop for the English teachers during the school week (not the weekend) and allow them to have a Professional Development Day that started early in the morning and didn’t require them to attend a 4 hour workshop after teaching all day. Initially he agreed to my request, but after speaking with the three school directors, he changed his mind and told me I could conduct the workshop starting at 12:00.

I in turn told him “I wasn’t going to conduct a workshop that violated every principle of conducting a successful workshop and I wasn’t going to do a mediocre job”. The impasse was resolved when Alexandra intervened and we compromised on a starting time of 10:00. I believe this may have been the first time that the decision of a person in power was challenged and only because I initiated the challenge. I had nothing to lose, unlike most citizens in the country who are fearful to challenge the decisions of those in power because of the political ramifications.

Anyway, all 10 of the the primary school English teachers turned out for the workshop. The high school director prohibited his teachers from missing classes to attend the workshop, somehow over-ruling the school manager’s decision (the director must be higher up in the political hierarchy). We had a great workshop and the teachers left with many useful handouts and new ideas. The teachers commented that it was a great experience and wished that they could have more opportunities to learn and share.

I also had the opportunity to conduct a couple of sessions (Teaching in a Multi-level Classroom and Developing Resources) for the MAK 15 TEFL’s who were attending their technical IST (In-Service Training) in Ohrid. This required me to spend 12 hours (round trip) on a bus (plus wait time for connections) and an overnight stay in a very nice hotel in Ohrid. The presentations afforded me the chance to share everything Alexandra and I had accomplished in the past 2 ½ years. I just hope that the PVC’s in attendance got something out of them.

By the way, my beautiful, capable, knowledgeable, talented wife (she reads this blog)) arrived for her fifth visit (and sadly her last since I will return to the USA in June) to Macedonia. And for the third time, her luggage arrived with her, improving the baggage-arrival-with-passenger rating at Sophia International Airport to 60%. I picked her up in the capital city of Bulgaria once again, since it costs $500 less than to fly there than into Skopje. Bobbie (our favorite taxi driver) and I continued our twice a year tradition of stopping at one of the McDonalds in Sophia. He always orders and a Big Mac and I always order three hamburgers, fries and a Skopsko beer. They taste exactly like a McDonalds in America,the hamburgers, not the beer.

March 8th was Woman’s Day in Macedonia (they don’t have a Mother’s Day as we know it - all women are honored). The children bring flowers for their female teachers and many of those teachers bring in sweets for their students. Alexandra got a ton of artificial roses. Traditionally, the women teachers celebrate at a local restaurant in the evening. They seem to really look forward to it.

The town had its annual Cleanup Day combined with the twice a year National Tree Planting Day. This year the high school students in Probistip, along with all the municipal workers, planted the trees while the primary school students cleaned up around the town roads and school grounds. The children came to school this day armed with brooms, garden rakes, hoes, and sticks with nails imbedded in the end for picking up paper. Surprisingly, and despite this plethora of pseudo-armament and the many pointed-stick duels I witnessed, no eyes were lost, no blood was let, no injuries reported, and no lawsuits filed. I also noticed a direct correlation of .97 between grade level and work ethic – the higher the grade level the less the level of enthusiasm and the amount of cleanup actually accomplished. This supports world-wide observations made on this matter of adolescent behavior. Once again my leaf rake was a big hit as few people in Macedonia have ever encountered one and wanted to try it out.

Similar to the Carnival in Strumica on Fat Tuesday, the town sponsored a Masken Ball (Costume Ball) for the young children and students the evening of 31 March. There was a tent erected on the town plaza for dignitaries and judges, a live band and an awesome sound system. The emcee for the evening was exceptionally good. There was also a decent fireworks display. Many residents turned out to watch the children parade around the plaza while the panel of judges, judged. Prizes were awarded in different categories for the best costumes. It was an entertaining family-oriented evening.

At one of our Wednesday evening English conversation group meetings back in the Fall, the topic of recreational activities for children came up, specifically the idea of safe bike-riding areas. The discussion revealed that there were no really safe areas for smaller children. So I half-jokingly suggested to one of our regular attendees, Clavche, that he should initiate a project to resolve this problem. And he accepted the challenge. He worked very hard over the winter months on the project, facing the many obstacles that confront new initiatives in Macedonia. David helped him out occasionally and I printed his posters, but that was it. He was rewarded for all his efforts when on 2 April, 65 bicyclists turned out for the first community ride of the GREEN PATHS Bicycle Club. They traveled to Strumush, a village about 15 kilometers away. There was local TV coverage of the event. Clavche was interviewed on the local TV station. He received the recognition he deserved.

It was rewarding for me to witness the seed of a suggestion turn into Clavche’s completed project.