Postcard Flashback: Peace Corps Volunteer Lessons in Resiliency

As the end of the Foreign Service bidding cycle came to a close, all of the waiting and ambiguity I thought would end upon that long hoped-for handshake instead deepened into more waiting, frustration, bureaucratic entanglements, and medical clearance issues. I am working on it and hopefully will be able to announce our onward assignment in the coming weeks. In the meantime, the feeling of getting very close to a good outcome, only to keep getting further away while jumping over unexpected obstacles in my path has been dogging me. Someday I will tell that story.

Today, I’ll tell a different story in the same vein, about a day in March 2003 during my first couple of months as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Macedonia. Originally entitled, “All For a List,” I wrote this piece about trying so hard to do something simple and being foiled, and foiled, and foiled some more. I silently raged against the machine, I almost lost patience, I almost let it get my goat. When the most straightforward situations devolve into total clown shows, it is the ability to laugh when you want to cry that keeps you resilient. I meet much bigger challenges more easily now, but for me that day in 2003 still marks how far I’ve since come in learning patience, thinking on my feet, and innovating on the fly. It is a snapshot in time of learning to build resiliency, and finding the calmest path to the destination you want. Don’t miss the scenery along the way!

March 19, 2003

My counterpart JA and I yesterday jointly came up with a tentatively-scheduled list of ideas for our spring ecology days celebration, starting this Friday.  She had promised to email it to me, both in English and in Macedonian, as our boss A wanted a meeting today with the new school director and JA had an obligation in Skopje. 

I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be attending a meeting without JA, as my Macedonian language is still limited, but I decided, what the hey.  The celebration is starting in a couple of days, I need to just suck it up and take a chance.  So, this morning I check my email prior to the meeting, and I don’t see [the list]. So finally A calls, half an hour later than he said he would, as I am avidly watching BBC news on the latest with the war preparations in Iraq.

A informs me that he is already at the school, so I make my way over to the building [next door to my apartment] and wander around inside until I find the director’s office.  About five women are sitting around in these long mauve-colored smocks with buttons – the uniform, apparently, of the school staff.  The room is dingy, with big tall windows.  Everyone is smoking, flipping through newspapers or magazines.  One lady is opening the mail apathetically with a long sharp knife, and the room is hot and unventilated.

Vancho Kitanov Elementary School

I ask A if he has the list.  He looks surprised.  He calls JA, who says that she did send me the list, so I get up to go back home and A instructs me to leave my language notebook, planner and dictionary there.  I understand the words, but I don’t understand why he cares or feels the need to order me around. Why should I leave my personal planner in a room full of people I don’t know? 

I politely explain that I don’t mind carrying my things, and everyone looks at me curiously.  (I think that people here sometimes think I make things too hard, i.e. when I moved the furniture in the apartment without calling virtual strangers for help, when I walk to the door to open it myself and people act surprised, etc.  I guess they want this kind of assistance from other people?)  I smile, go back home, get online on my laptop, see the list in my junk mail, put it on a disk, and head back over to the school. 

Then I am told we have to print it out, so me, A, and his wife M (also my landlord) head downstairs to the basement of the school, where there is some kind of metal working class.  Tons of students are running around in the basement, shrieking, and the teacher doesn’t appear to notice.  One kid is riding a large, ancient bicycle indoors.  There isn’t really enough room so when he gets to one end, he turns around and nearly runs over some girls. 

I stand, bewildered, as M grabs my disk and blank paper out of my hand and starts speaking with the teacher.  As the kids gather around, the teacher opens a door in the back of the room that leads to a closet-type room.

The walls are lined with old shelves, and there is an island worktable of some sort in the middle of the room.  Every available surface is covered with pieces of scrap, plastic, wire, and other unidentifiable junk and supplies. Drawers hang open, sharp things are lying around everywhere.  No safety hazards here, I think.  Surprisingly, in one corner there is what looks to be a pretty new computer and printer on a little table.  I attempt to print [the list] for about fifteen minutes, but over and over the paper jams, and when it doesn’t, it prints out a blank sheet.

I attempt to work with the printer capabilities and the print manager, unplugging the thing and re-plugging it back in, turning it off and on, adjusting the cartridge, all to no avail, while M and the teacher watch and tons of giggling kids gather around.  Apparently it is the only “working” printer in the school.  So after 15-20 minutes, M and I give up and head back upstairs to the director’s office where she confiscates my disk and disappears.  Everyone sits in this silence and tea is poured for me, sugar added that I didn’t want, everyone just sitting.  I think, if I knew how to explain everything on the damn list in Macedonian, we wouldn’t even need the stupid thing.

I wonder, where did M go?  After another 15 minutes of sitting, she returns with the disk, and I finally get the gist: she took it to someone’s house nearby, who has a computer.  Wouldn’t you know, their printer won’t print either.  It bothers me slightly to think of my disk being at someone’s house that I don’t know.  But it was my one disk with nothing else on it in case I take it somewhere and accidentally lose it.  (A lack of privacy affects me on a daily basis, from people at the post office calling my work and telling whoever answers that I have mail and what kind, from my phone bill being delivered to A at work and everyone in the whole town getting to see it and make comments about how expensive it is, to hearing from other people what I bought at the store and what I cooked…) 

So A tells me to come with him to our Kladenec office, where there is a printer.  We walk outside, [and although] the NGO is only five minutes’ walk, he instructs me to get into his ancient car, and off we go. The smell of exhaust probably won’t take long to kill me so I crack the window to avoid certain carbon monoxide poisoning.  Ten or 15 feet later his father walks into the middle of the narrow road ahead of us and waves to get A’s attention.  A stops the car and shuts it off, and we proceed to chat with his father.  I don’t really have anything to say, and am starting to feel more than a little stressed with the respect for time that is shown, or should I say the lack of respect.  But I realize that I am the only person apparently bothered.  After all, all the people sitting around in the office did not look like they were fired up for any meeting, or anything at all, actually.  I am not sure how all this works, I have never before experienced this type of situation in a “workplace!”

So we finally make it to Kladenec.  It occurs to me again that all this trouble is simply for a list, to facilitate nothing more than a discussion, an information-sharing courtesy, a request for ideas and collaboration.  God, this is so frustrating!  If only I could speak Macedonian better (or rely on English), if only I could understand the context of what is going on around me.

I fire up JA’s computer (N is not in the office) and put in the disk.  But when I try to open the documents, I am not able to.  The computer is not able to convert the program from my laptop.  The computer is slow, and I try repeatedly but nothing works.  Just as I am feeling as if my head will explode, it occurs to me to go online and re-download the two documents and just print them from JA’s computer, cutting out my laptop and disk which are only complicating things. The computer finally makes it online after about 12 minutes.

A sits at the table, staring into the distance, waiting patiently.  I apologize repeatedly, which he seems not to understand.  I don’t know why he didn’t say, “I have better things to do.”  People here don’t seem to mind.  I print.  We go back to the school, and sit down. 

I am offered tea and coffee this time, but I politely decline.  I am anxious to get the show on the road with the meeting.  After about 10 minutes of sitting I feel like the silence is getting too awkward – please note, no one else appears to notice this.  I wonder, what are we doing, can we DO something!! 

I venture to ask A what we are waiting for, and he tells me the director is not in the office, but on his way!  I thought the lady sitting at the big desk was the director.  How silly of me.  The director is a man!  After the elections last fall, a different political party was voted in and therefore, all the directors in all the schools around Macedonia have to be changed.  In some schools, this is just now taking place!  The former directors of all these schools, well, their party is not in office now, so tough beans for them.  They probably are unemployed, or looking for someone to hire them despite their party affiliation.

This director had only been in the school three or four days, and finally arrived a blessedly short time later. 

The next 45 minutes was a rather painful meeting in which I tried to explain my ideas, using the English and Macedonian lists and not understanding most of the quiet, sometimes smirking conversations between the director and A.  I start to feel defensive as I am asked for funding, and one by one my ideas seem to be getting shot down.  I try to maintain a professional composure, but often times I don’t know how to react when I am being discussed and I don’t understand what exactly is being said.  I don’t know whether to be annoyed, relieved, elaborate on something specific – how frustrating. 

Sometimes I will catch something like “She’s just a girl” or “Why isn’t she married already” or something else offensive, that causes me to not know the appropriate reaction.  And of course I have to sit around and sit around, sometimes pointlessly with these people who talk about me like this…

Finally, the biology teacher and one of the English teachers show up, and things start to look up.  I explain some of my ideas in more detail, and we make arrangements to meet again with JA on Friday, when an ecology class will be taught in the school.  I am taken upstairs for 30 or so minutes after the meeting, and get to check out the biology classroom, which is actually very cool.  Tons of dead animals and bugs in jars and in cases, as well as some surprisingly intuitive student eco-art. 

This particular moment bolsters me, and I remember what “this” is all about.  The kids, the next generation, the chance to bring some hope here. The room is old, the view of the factories out the windows is sad and ugly, but there are a few new tables and chairs, and the room is clean and orderly.  Lots of anatomy posters are hung about the room, and other things that I am not sure about.

By the time I got home, I took a look at the piled up laundry and the dishes and had to laugh.  (No washing machine, and the only way to hand wash dishes in hot water is to first heat the water on the stovetop because M and A hadn’t seen fit to fix the kitchen boiler.)  If I don’t laugh, I will cry, and I can’t cry.  Sometimes it seems like the life I had in the United States was so easy.  Why didn’t I do more?  Oh, [where things are efficient,] where I have the ability to speak my mind in any situation, to know all the unspoken agreements in a culture about behavior. Only to know those things and I could live anywhere!

  5 comments for “Postcard Flashback: Peace Corps Volunteer Lessons in Resiliency

  1. November 4, 2018 at 12:08

    I needed to read this today. I feel a lot of the same things you felt, and I’m in a modern capital city!

    Liked by 1 person

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Sarah W Gaer

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