On the Eve of Swearing-in as a Peace Corps Volunteer

This post was written September 7, 2017

It’s hard to believe that only three months ago I left Memphis with two suitcases almost as tall as me. I remember sobbing all the way through security (which wasn’t that long, because it’s Memphis) and waving goodbye to my dad…that was heartbreaking. Fast-forward to last month when I got sick and had to leave my training site in Montasoa to go see the PC doctors in Tana. I called my dad over WhatsApp and told him the truth (my sickness was minor, but my fear was major). I sobbed again and said, for the first time,

“What if I can’t actually do this?”

I don’t like feeling afraid. It makes me think I’m weak, and feeling weak to me means feeling helpless, which means I have to reach out to people when I’m in trouble, which I fundamentally despise. I know that this is my own pride, wanting so desperately to be good at everything and have all the answers and never have to rely on anyone else to get me there.  In training we talked a lot about the courage to show up and be vulnerable, to admit that you don’t have all the answers but you are willing to try.

I’ve tried so hard to be independent and fearless, yet now that I’ve come into the world of global development with Peace Corps, I’m starting to realize this very important truth: development relies on collaboration. And not just collaboration on projects or budgets or lesson plans; it requires whole-hearted, empathetic, humanitarian collaboration. It means having the courage to look someone in the face and say, “I see you. I am here. Let us work together.”

That means being messy. That means being wrong. That means letting others see your weaknesses so that you can say “this didn’t work. Let’s try again.” And then have the courage to try again and again and again.

From Memphis to Montasoa, these past three months of Pre-Service training have been so intense: emotionally, physically, and intellectually. It’s difficult to put into words exactly how I feel on the eve of Swear-In because I frankly haven’t had enough time to think about it. Sometimes the language, the training, the constant input makes it impossible for me to think about anything other than the immediate moment: communicate effectively, plan the lesson, eat the beans and rice, walk over the bumps in the road to get to class. It’s almost like being on autopilot.

I’ve heard from other volunteers that PST is the hardest part. You have to give up a lot of autonomy and trust an organization that you barely know, staff you’ve barely met, and function mostly in a language that is not your own. But despite all these odds, I am terribly excited to install and I’m so excited to be a Peace Corps volunteer. It’s the mess that I like…though I know that as volunteers we are held to a high standard of conduct and appearance…the mess is all around us. And in this mess is where we find the beauty.

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Pre-Service Training hike to the top of the cell tower in Montasoa

 

Chapter One: The Beginning

This post was written on August 6, 2017

Where else can I begin? I wriggled myself free from the rusty leather seat of the tax-brouse and spilled out onto the paved asphalt road. I looked down at my feet, unaware of how swollen they’d become from twenty four hours in the van. The road from Tana to Ambilobe is paved, which is an enormous blessing, but the road is narrow and windy and there is only one way. If you get stuck behind a freight truck, you have to pass it or move to the side, and if the tires need changing, which they always do, you have to stop on the side of the road to do it. That normally happens in the middle of the night right after you’ve finally managed to nod off.

So when I arrived in my new hometown, I was extremely tired and a little bit sore, and I stood on the pavement outside the brosse as people and colors swarmed around me and our driver unloaded our bags from underneath the seats and above the van on the roof, previously secured under blue tarp with some rope. I barely have enough time to look up before people are smiling at me and talking to me, but at that moment it only sounded like noise. I handed my sleeping to a tall woman with a kind face a broad smile and followed her away from the road. The crowd has steadily grown, and one man starts shouting to everyone that, “look! A foreigner has come here and she doesn’t understand Malagasy.” I turned around and, with my best stern face and practiced accent say, “Of course I understand Malagasy,” and his eyes went big and then he started laughing. If we were playing a game, I’m not sure whether I won it.

I followed the trail of people and baggage down the side road and onto a sandy path that revealed my home for the next ten days.

It’s hot in my new town. Thankfully my host sister, the one with the big smile and the kind face, hands me a bucket of water immediately and says, “go, shower.” Who knew something so small could be so sweet? The shower was outside and built out of bamboo leaves and immediately made me think of the 1960s movie version of South Pacific, that scene where Mary Martin is washing her hair on the beach. I know I’m not in a movie, but sometimes I like to pretend, because everything feels so foreign anyway.

Karibo,” my host sister,  Nasy, says to me after I finish my shower. “Come in and eat.” I sit down cross-legged on the bamboo mat and dig in to a plate of milky white rice, vegetables and fish. She stares at me…I’m not sure what she is looking for. She starts talking and my ears begin to buzz; I cannot keep up with the flood of loud, boisterous language coming towards me, punctuated with whoops and whistles and exaggerated vowels and syllables. It’s nothing like the way people speak in Tana, in the highlands, where I’d been training. And neither is Nasy. When she smiles and laughs, her whole body shakes, a deep, rich laugh that echoes through the compound. When she hears music coming from a neighbor’s house (which always happens), she begins to dance like she is keeping a secret and wants to make you guess what it is. She is not timid. I see no fear in her. But then again, I barely know her.

A New Story to Tell

Preface

I don’t consider myself a great storyteller, but I want to be. Those who are wise and observant, nonjudgmental and painstakingly descriptive are the great writers with whom I am enraptured. I’ve never understood my impulse to write and paint pages with sound and letters, but, here it is. Often I feel the urge to write because something is boiling inside me, and I can’t find any other way to let out the steam. I consider this urge a weakness; I lack discipline. But what I do have is autonomy; the will to write what I want, however I want to write it. This brings me back to storytelling.

I believe everyone has their own unique, beautiful story—some stories are more often told than others. When one walks down the street, one sees only fragments of a beautiful story: the sides of faces, whisps of smile or furrowed brow, tufts of soft or graying or mussy hair, painted fingernails or steel-toed boots, gaps in smiles, missing teeth. These fragments tell a greater story of a life lived whole.

There are seven and a half billion people on this planet. How many lifetimes would it take to write the story—the complete story—of every single one of us?

Author and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche gave a remarkable speech that the calls “The Danger of a Single Story.” I invite you to watch it below (and then continue reading!)

So what does any of this have to do with Peace Corps? A lot.

Last week I visited my site—a small, quite village in northern Madagascar where I will be stationed as an English education volunteer for the next two years, starting in September. I was there for ten days, and around day five, I felt just about ready to pull my hair out.

“What do people do all day?” I thought to myself. “Why does everyone feel the need to say things to me that are so obviously apparent…like asking me if I’m walking when I am clearly walking. And why do people invite me to do things and then not show up to them? Why, why, why???”

Ah, but the sky is so big here, and the stars are so bright.

“Yes, but do they realize it?”

Are you aware of all the lines on your own palms? Their curves and features?

I started counting down the days until I could return to the Peace Corps Training Center and complain, in the company of other Americans, in sweet, sweet English, about how ridiculous everything is and how difficult and how nothing made sense, how I felt neglected and ignored and sad and confused, and that, and that, and that…

And then I went for a jog around the school track in the evening, and I saw a mountain in the distance. And I wondered if anyone had ever climbed it, all the way to the top. And then I looked down at Fardo, the ten year old boy jogging happily beside me, teasing me, urging me to run faster, faster, faster.

And I felt so ashamed.

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I thought about the promise I had made to myself state-side to come in with no expectations, to not to be self-righteous, and to be a learner. I hadn’t been doing that at all. I’d been afraid—afraid of being laughed at, afraid of being insulted or misunderstood. Most of all I’d been afraid of being wrong and not having any right answer. And then I wondered if my host family, my kind and gracious and eager and excited new host family, neighbors and community members, had been feeling the exact same way.

I had been writing my own story: an uninformed, angry, judgmental story. I had failed to be observant, failed to notice the ways in which people greet or dance or laugh with their whole bodies. I had failed at so many things before I even got started.

This story is not my story. There is another story to tell, and I have the unique, awesome privilege of bearing witness to it, of inclining my ear and writing down words and giving those words away to others to read and understand. Finally, finally, I am taking myself out of the equation.

This is not a single story, either. As Adichie’s video expresses, that would be impossible and incomplete. So, starting now, I present to you a story with many characters, many shapes, many arcs. Sometimes I will be in the story. Sometimes I won’t. I don’t know yet how it will end. I haven’t even begun. But this is the story I’m writing about a small town in northern Madagascar. I don’t know what you’re expecting. I’ll give you what I can.

A Day in the Life in Montasoa

July 3, 2017 Blog Post #2

Each morning I wake up around 6 am; at this time, the sun creeps up over the mountains, but I can never see it, because my windows block out most of the sun. Instead, I’m awoken not by the familiar sound of my phone alarm, but by the zaza kely (baby) crying and the rooster crowing outside. My family stirs upstairs, and I pull the blankets up to my eyeballs, savoring the last few minutes of warm sleep. Eventually, I pull myself out of my dreamy state and stumble outside with my po (chamber pot) to empty it into the kabone (outhouse). I might take a shower in the ladosy or do some yoga in my trano (room) if I’m feeling strong. Around seven, my host mom or dad will call out to me softly:

“Melanie?”

“Eny?” (yes), I respond.

“Sakafo.”

It’s time to eat. I walk upstairs to the dining area and sit down at the rectangular table to partake in what is now my favorite food ritual—French style, if I may be so bold. Kafe amin’ny siramamy sy ronono, (coffee with sugar and milk). With our kafe we have mofodupain (French baguette) and mofogasy, (Malagasy bread, which is a small, sweet fried rice dumpling). I spread some totomboanjo on my mofodupain and dip it into my kafe as the morning mist rises above the fruit trees. This is my home.

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Nenyko (my host mom) and I. Her name is…wait for it…Melanie!

After sakafo maraina (breakfast), I sweep my room (if I’m not running late) with my kofafa and then polish the floor with the cocoborosy. This helps get rid of any mud I may have dragged in with my nasty boots. Then I throw my books in my bag and head off to school. Four hours of language class await me! My language trainers are patient, kind, and endlessly hilarious. They speak slow, animated Malagasy and repeat words again and again until myself and my fellow trainees can comprehend their meaning. Then we practice, stumble over our words, and practice again. Of course, the real learning comes outside of the classroom, when friendly or curious neighbors ask me questions in accents I cannot understand. Most of the time I smile and nod and answer with a statement that I think is close to an answer. I’m right about thirty-three percent of the time.

 

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Washing dishes with nenyko and zandryko (my little brother).

 

We go back to our homes for sakafo atoandry (lunch)—usually beans and vegetables and always rice—then return for afternoon technical sessions: more class, more note-taking, more studying. My day finishes around 5:30 pm and I zip up my coat for the walk home. When the sun dips behind the horizon, it becomes quite cold. But this is still my favorite time of day. I take a shortcut home that passes through fields of rice paddies, all perfectly, geometrically aligned. The setting sun turns the stalks a crisp golden-yellow, and I smile to myself as I balance on small walkways in between them. I usually see my host brothers playing outside when I come home. We’ll eat dinner and maybe play some cards (though, since they’re very small, it’s usually just 52-pick up) but lately I’ve had so much homework to do, and I’m usually very tired. There’s an element of being “on” all the time that is very internally exhausting, even if I’m not aware of it as I’m going through my day. But though the days are long, and I’m grateful for a nice warm bed at the end of them, I love these days. I know they are special; soon training will be over and a whole new world will begin all over again. I’ll have to readjust and stretch my skin some more until something new fits. Then I’ll do it again, and again, and again. Life is full of stretch marks, but they also make really good stories.

Until next time!

Pre-Service Training #1: Welcome to Mantasoa!

June 28th 2017. Blog post #1 for PST.

Tonga Soa and Welcome! This marks the first of many posts about my new life…living and serving in Madagascar as a Peace Corps TEFL (English Language Education) Volunteer. This isn’t just a new job…it’s a whole new life. The best way I can explain what has been happening to me is this: I am relearning how to live. I feel like a child. Practically overnight, I lost the ability to communicate and the autonomy to make nearly all decisions for myself and by myself. It’s as if I’m giving up control of my life in order to be built anew. It’s hilarious, irritating, and very, very humbling. I wonder if deep down it’s necessary to experience a naissance in one’s host country to feel like you’re home and you really belong….

But, I am getting ahead of myself. For the sake of brevity I would like to answer a few burning questions you might be having about just what I’ve been doing since arriving in Madagascar…

Where are you living? I am living in the town on Mantasoa, which is between 2 to 3 hours’ drive from the capital city, Antananarivo (known in-country simply as ‘Tana.’) Though Mantasoa is small (I heard a figure of around 5,000 people…I’m not quite sure if that’s accurate or not), it feels quite big because it’s very spread out. Little hamlets dot the landscape, tucked behind acres of rice fields and beautiful clear lakes. In the morning, haze lifts above the mountains and it is impossible to see five feet ahead of one’s nose.

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View of Lake Mantasoa from the Peace Corps Training Center

Who are you living with? I am living with a host family, as are all twenty-nine other TEFL volunteers. We come together in the mornings and afternoons for language classes and technical training sessions.

What are you doing? Learning! We have four hours of language class every morning. So far, I have found Malagasy to be such a fun, sing-songy language with lots of repetitive vowels and literal meanings. I like it. Every afternoon we have technical sessions on a variety of topics: safety and security, health—(I now know more than I ever thought possible about ways to contract and treat diarrhea)—cross-cultural and education. In short, the days are long and jam-packed.

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Our PST focuses on experiential and student-centered learning techniques…so we do a lot of group work and writing on flipchart paper. Example A: Malaria awareness!

What are you eating? Rice! Lots of it. I’m also eating vegetables in incredible variety. My favorites so far include fried green beans, mashed pumpkin with garlic and ginger, and cauliflower with tomato and egg. I’ve also had so many varieties of beans that I can’t name even in English. But my most favorite thing is totomboanjo, which translates to mashed peanuts. Yes, it’s peanut butter, but: eat your heart out, Jiff. This is the real deal—salt and roasted peanuts only. I got to mash the voanjo (peanuts) on Sunday using my host family’s giant mortar and pestle, and I quickly realized that it might not be that difficult to stay in shape after all…

What do you do with your free time? To be honest, there isn’t much. Classes take up most days, and because it’s winter, it gets dark (and cooold) around 6 pm. Last weekend was Malagasy Independence Day, however, so there were soccer games and festivities; practically the whole town was out. It felt nice to be out in the sunshine and relax a bit, although it wasn’t entirely relaxing because I was still fumbling through my two-year-old Malagasy! Currently, I can hold a two to three minute conversation before my brain hits a wall.

Have you seen any lemurs yet? No. And I probably won’t for a while.

What’s next? Pre-service training continues for the next two and a half months. I feel totally unprepared for what’s to come, and I’m unable to speculate that much about it. Right now, I’m just Trusting the Process (as I learned from my last job) and relying on the many resources Peace Corps is giving me…books and notepads and curriculum to name a few. But the best resource so far has been the people: our Language and Cultural facilitators, our staff, my host family, my fellow trainees, my community. Talk about active learning!

Until next time! Stay tuned.

Packing for Peace Corps

When packing for Peace Corps,  you can only take:

two suitcases, 23 kg (50 lb) each

one carry-on

one personal item

Geez. Guess I’ll be leaving my library at home!

A few months ago, I wrote a post touting the benefits of packing light. I’m a big believer in traveling light so that you aren’t weighed down (pun intended) by your own possessions. But lately I’ve just become so gosh darn possessive!

Going into the Peace Corps is a giant leap of faith. Sure, this can be very exciting and appealing to someone who has nothing to lose, but it makes for a frustrating packing experience. As a kind friend recently pointed out,  packing my bags is literally the only thing I can control about my experience right now. So I suppose it’s natural to want to pack up my entire life and take it with me across the world to Madagascar.

There’s a great quote originally from Matthew 6:21 (new testament) that says,

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

For a few weeks now, my treasure has evidently become economy-sized Dove shampoo.

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How am I possibly going to decide what to pack??

 

It is impossible to know what to expect (and I should say that the Peace Corps staff for Madagascar has been ridiculously communicative through the pre-departure process, for which I am incredibly grateful! But even so, I’m nervous.) I suppose this is my first lesson as a volunteer: let things go.

In The Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook (which I highly recommend to anyone considering applying for service), the author says the following:

You may have an urge to pack 500 Q-tips and industrial size shampoos, but don’t. Give your new host country’s people credit; they have cool stuff of their own. [And besides], Being able to shake hands and give high fives [when stepping off the plane] is another great reason to pack light. (29, 32)

I did try and pack 500 Q-tips, though…and I don’t even use Q-tips!

I truly had to keep cutting back (and I’ve already packed a box full of non-essentials that I might request my dad to send to me a few months from now). In the end, the Q-tips, giant shampoo and fancy tea didn’t make it in my luggage…I might regret that later on. But I definitely don’t want to arrive with my hands so full that I can’t give a proper greeting to my new family.

I’m just going to have to trust. And if you think about it, people used to travel and with far less stuff. Have you seen the tiny closets that are in old houses? I think we’ve collectively, as a culture, become bogged down by our possessions and can easily find ourselves wrapped up in them, feeling like an extension of our things and not a human person. I’m guilty number one.

But this is okay. I’m learning. And now my friends in Memphis won’t have to buy shampoo for a very, very long time.

My first WWOOF Experience

If you’ve ever thought that spending time in nature sounded nice, have you checked out WWOOF?

WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and is exactly what the name says. It is an international network of organic farmers, who serve as hosts for eager travelers. It’s a chance to explore a different region/country/continent, practice some language, learn a skill, and develop amazing relationships you’d never expect.

I spent the last two weeks of my spring Eurotrip WWOOFing (yes, it’s a verb) in Basse-Normandy, France.

 

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A map of my route, for reference!

How did I choose a tiny town in Basse-Normandie? Simple. On the WWOOF website (you pay 20 Euro be a member for a year and then you have access to the catalogue of host farms in the country you choose) there is a list of filters including type of activity (IE permaculture, orchard, dairy, eco projects) and length of stay (one week, two weeks, 1 month). I had two weeks to farm; I was interested in orchards and eco projects. So I found La Fermette du Bellefontaine.

 

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A rainy day on La Fermette

La fermette means “little farm,” and that’s exactly what it was: a small scale organic farm owned and operated by a few friends. Each had his and her own plot of land and primary source of income: one is a vegetable gardener, one a seamstress, and my host, the master baker.

 

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For most French people, bread is life. It’s fresh, it’s inexpensive and it’s eaten three times a day. And why wouldn’t you eat it when the grain was grown and harvested three miles away?

As for eco projects, these included a composting toilet (of which I sadly did not take a picture, but I’ll leave that to you to research), an organic sewage system that uses water-loving plants to clean used water, and newspaper insulation. All created by my host out of his desire to “be as autonomous as possible.”

It’s amazing what you can learn when you least expect it, when you enter into a new situation with zero expectations. I left a lot more informed about steps I can take as an individual to reduce my impact and respect our planet. And I had the best cheese of my life.

 

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View of the town from a hilltop! Not pictured: the medieval fortress I climbed to take this photo.

 

 

 

 

Easter in Ohrid

“A prophet he was, without words, but with a most beautiful personality. A prophet he was, without words; A prophet–with righteousness and mercy.”

-The Prologue from Ohrid, St. Nikolai Velimirovic (1880/1-1956)

Almost every night at dinner when I was little, my dad would open The Prologue from Ohrid and read a passage on the life of a great saint. This life story usually ended with a gruesome martyrdom (being torn apart by lions in a Roman amphitheater, for example), followed by a prayer invoking the intercessions of the saint (oh holy Saint n., pray to God for me). There are a lot of oddities like this encompassed in early Christian tradition…

It was odd growing up Orthodox in America; I never knew how to explain to people that I was Orthodox, but not Greek or Russian and often felt insecure about being the odd one out at parties. In all my travels up until now,  I realized that I had never once been to an Orthodox country.

That changed last month when I went to Macedonia for the first time. Macedonia, if you’re wondering, is a tiny country situated in between Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Kosovo (another contested state), and Albania. The country is also referred to as FYROM–the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia–because it is just that. Its national sovereignty is also contested by Greece.

Regardless of Macedonia’s current political status, the country is mostly Orthodox (the second largest religious group being Muslim, I believe). Most people there speak Macedonian (a Slavic language very closely related to Bulgarian), while others speak Albanian (and technically refer to themselves as Albanian, not Macedonian). There is also a Roma population who speaks Romani and something else, I forget what. And that is, unfortunately, the extend of my ethnographical knowledge. Still, the country takes all Eastern Orthodox religious holidays as national holidays, including Good Friday and Bright Monday (the day after Easter/Pascha). So, with my friend whom I was visiting, we went to Ohrid, a lake town about three hours southwest of the capital city, Skopje.

Ohrid reminded me a tiny bit of Jerusalem: textile and sweet shops lined narrow, cobblestone streets as mobs of families and tourists forced their way through. But then, once you turn a few corners, you come to Lake Ohrid and find a beautifully pristine scene reminiscent of southern Italy with its sunny sidewalk cafes:

 

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A view of old Ohrid from the pier

 

Indeed, the weather was beautiful, a far cry from the wintry storms I had experienced up until then (and would experience again after leaving Ohrid :(). We took advantage of the sunshine to explore the city’s tiny cobblestone roads. This was how I began to understand its ancient history and the connection to early Christianity.

Ohrid is a city on a hill, with the homes, corner stores, and churches built into the landscape. The further we climbed, the more I began to realize that there was a church on virtually every street corner; sometimes two or three. Not all were very large or even open. But there they sat, sometimes tucked in between homes, always with a sign of patronage (the church of St. Barbara, St. Sophia, Sts. Constantine and Helen, for example). Once we reached the top of the hill, I laid eyes on another ancient site that began to make my brain spin: a half-uncovered Roman amphitheater.

 

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Roman amphitheater

 

Remarkable as this structure is, it is to be noted that quite possibly, this amphitheater was used to execute Christians in the Roman period before Emperor Constantine legalized and embraced Christianity and shifted the capital east to Constantinople (now Istanbul). After learning this fact, I started to wonder if that’s why Ohrid has so many churches, and why the Prologue (the compilation of martyrs stories I mentioned earlier) was penned from this ancient city.

One can only postulate.

Having this in my mind, I felt very cautious the rest of the weekend. Upon whose bones might I have unknowingly tread? It began to feel even more like Jerusalem, a place where every stone and grain of sand has history.

Yet here I was on Easter weekend, the time when Christians celebrate Christ’s victory over death and the promise of a life that transcends earth. My mind couldn’t understand it. But somewhere deep down, my heart knew something was amiss on the eve of Pascha. I felt afraid and timid as I ventured out of my AirBnb around 10 pm, alone, in the dark, trying to find the Church of Sts. Clement and Panteleimon, where I knew many Macedonians would be gathering. I said a prayer as I walked uphill toward the ancient fortress (another pre-Christian era force of strength built by relatives of Alexander the Conqueror) and it must have been heard, because as soon as I started strolling down a very dark, remote path, someone called to me from a house across the way “not that way!” Through a brief exchange of gestures, I eventually figured out the proper direction. Once I hit the street I was swept up in a loose crowd of people all walking the same direction. Men sat on the side of the street selling candles. I figured I was in the right place. I arrived to the ancient church, which overlooks the lake from high atop the hill. Already families were gathered outside.

I went inside, venerated the icons (a traditional greeting and sign of respect when one enters an Orthodox church) and then stood against a wall, waiting. I was greatly pleased at how normal everything felt. I have always loved this about the Orthodox church. No matter where in the world one may be, the church has the exact same meaning.

Eventually the service began with the traditional invocation. Even though most of the prayers were in Macedonian, I knew essentially what was happening, because again, the services follow the same pattern the world over. About fifteen minutes in to the night, all the lights went out. This signifies the night. Then the priests (there were two, as well as the Bishop present) began to sing…in English, the words are this: Come take light from the Light that is never overtaken by the Night. Come glorify the Christ, Risen from the dead. I can’t tell you what the Macedonian is, but I know its meaning. Which is pretty cool, I think. As they sing, they pass by with candles and share a flame, until every person present has a lighted candle. Then they left the church and we followed out, until we were mostly outside.

At this point, may more prayers were said and the Gospel was read to the crowd. Then the Bishop began to speak. Though I could not understand, I did hear Makedonia mentioned several times in the speech. It was then that I had another thought about the connection between Church and State and how, in some ways, I wondered how differently the Church was perceived in Macedonia. Is it seen as an institution, as most churches are perceived in the States? I’m sure to some extent, yes, though I shouldn’t make assumptions. But it was a great reminder of the limitations of man’s own agenda in the political makeup of history and one of my favorite lines from the Orthodox liturgy (from a Psalm of David):

Put not your trust in princes, in sons of men, in whom there is no salvation.

 

Then the bells began to ring, and a familiar song came through the air:

I apologize for the poor video quality, but the song is this:

Christ is Risen from the dead

trampling down death by death

And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

The smells of incense and candle smoke perfumed the air as I walked home later on in the early morning hours. I looked over hill top and the moon was smiling at me from above the clouds, illuminating other churches and homes where I knew the same prayers were being said and the same Resurrection was being celebrated. It was as if the night was saying to me, “Why are you afraid? There is Peace. There is Light. And you are wonderfully small.”

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Ah, Germany!

Charm, family, history, and agency. These words summarize my quick but memorable trip to Goslar, Braunschweig (aka Brunswick) and Berlin, Germany.

Berlin was my first stop in Europe; normally I arrive exhausted from a long trip and wander around the airport until I find a person or a sign to direct me to where I am going. But this time, my cousin and sister were waiting for me. I’m so used to going this alone that it was definitely a nice change, and I was so glad to explore Germany with them. My cousin and her boyfriend live in Brunswick, about two and a half hours west of Berlin. I ended up staying with them longer than expected because of some travel miscommunications, but this was fortunate as we got to explore a former medieval mining town and UNESCO heritage sight, Goslar. Below are a few photo highlights:

That’s Goslar in the background. Behind us were thick, piney woods, and above us were some daring paragliders. All in a half a day’s visit 🙂

 

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Hummus victory!

After leaving Brunswick, I went back to Berlin to meet up with a friend and former study-abroad companion. It has been four years since studying abroad and seeing her, but it felt like no time had passed. And it was so nice to talk about life and politics and how much our lives continue to be shaped by those momentous, sandy six months in 2012. She even found a delicious Israeli hummus restaurant like the ones we used to eat at in Be’er Sheva. Here’s the secret: don’t add too much tahini and serve the hummus warm.

 

I suppose no trip to Berlin would be complete without visiting some historic sites, including the Berlin Wall Memorial, which stands soberly as a poignant reminder of the futility of walls and the resiliency of the human spirit; the East Side Gallery, another remaining portion of the Wall that has been covered with beautiful and provocative murals from artists all around the world; and the Topography of Terror, a museum that covers the Nazi atrocities from historical and sociopolitical perspectives, on the sight of the former Reich Security Main Office, aka the Nazi and Gestapo headquarters.

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You will never run out of things to do or ways to get there in Berlin. I was amazed at how quickly I felt at home on the S-Bahn, even when I took the wrong train.

My friend and I talked about the politics of asylum in Germany and how quickly those policies are changing throughout Europe and the USA. It was very sobering; it seems the whole world is trying to come to Germany, while half a century ago, millions were trying to leave, and no one seems prepared for how rapidly the world is changing these days. Memorials and museums are supposed to teach us how we let these things happen and challenge to ask ourselves, “Why?” It’s so easy to remain quiet and complacent out of fear or willful ignorance, and I’m certainly guilty of that. But I listened to an American podcast last night about the US elections, and I was reminded of how empowering protesting or civil resistance can be in the face of oppression. Like the man in the picture above, I don’t have to raise my hand just because everyone else does.

I hope you’ll go to Berlin someday, if you haven’t already. I hope Germany will still be an open and welcoming place when you go. Berlin is…funky.

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