The content and opinions expressed in this blog are mine. They do not represent the US Government or US Peace Corps - Jud Dolphin

Sunday, June 28

Kindness - On the Way Home and Beyond

It's a day for festivities. Peace Corps Volunteers are being celebrated for their work in Macedonia.

This story has an unlikely beginning. It started decades ago when Ace, our Macedonian host, was young. As an adventuresome boy might do, he was exploring the town's graveyard when he discovered a stone in English. It was for an American doctor – James F. Donnelly. He lost is life here while treating others during the great Typhoid epidemic of 1914.

Ace tells us the story 
Ace was deeply moved then and now in the retelling - “A man, not Macedonian, leaving family and home, helping others and losing his life here – the first American.” 

 As the gravestone says, “Greater love has no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

This boyhood memory connects years later when Ace meets his first Peace Corps Volunteers. Again, here are Americans leaving family and homes to help Macedonians. 

As a result of this friendship, he became involved in projects helping disabled children. “We didn't know there was such a problem until David helped us become aware.”

PC Country Director, Corey, assists 
Ace in laying flowers on the grave site
We walk to the town's graveyard. Flowers are laid on the doctor's grave. The story is retold and we pay our respects. James F. Donnely is remembered even though there's no mention of him on Google as far as I can tell.

As I walk back, I have a growing awareness that acts of kindness are not lost. They live on. And sometimes, even out of grave yards, a century later, they inspire others.

We gather in a room. Volunteers sit with Macedonian counterparts. All take turns sharing glimpses of Peace Corps service. I marvel at the enthusiasm of younger volunteers. Young in life, they already are making a difference.

The celebration part of our day begins. We make our way to a grand winery outside of town. As we drive down the dusty drive, I see neatly staked vines already filling with clusters of grape. It'll be a good harvest.

On the veranda of the main house, a luncheon is ready for us.

Everyone is in high spirits as we take our seats.  The day is beautiful.  A cool breeze, unusual for this time of year, sweeps down the long table.  

The meal starts with offers of Rakia – alcohol content 60% plus. It's traditional Macedonian welcome.

Two new friends.  One directs a local cultural center and wants to teach youth film making and the other belongs to a wood carving guild and mentors the next generation into the craft.  
After toasts and careful sips (at least for me), we dig into large platters of greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, roasted peppers and shredded carrots. Side dishes with feta and olives are passed along too.

I ask if the peppers are hot ones. “Just the small.” I'm told. “But try them all, you'll like.” I smile and pass the plate along. I've been there before.  Salad is followed by platters of meco. The meats include slabs of pork ribs, chicken and tasty sausages.  I transition from the Rakia to a nice Rose wine.  It's fresh and not too sweet.  

And then I try the Cabernet.  

Wow, I've never tasted such a delicious wine. It's wonderful - full body velvet with a smooth finish.

We share lots of toasts and lively conversations.  It's like we have a lot in common and of course, we do - Americans and Macedonians serving together through the Peace Corps.  
The owner beckons me to follow him. We descend into the wine cellar. It's cool and the shelves are neatly displaying bottle after bottle. I tell the owner how much I enjoyed the wine. He stands proud and I ask to snap a photo.

I buy four for about $20. I would have bought more, but I knew I had a bus ride home at the end of the day. Four is enough for now.

We say our goodbyes and head for Skopje. Along the way we see young men on bikes and others on foot moving northward. At first I thought they might be Euro-kids trekking for the summer, but no.

Internet stock photo
These are people fleeing the blood bath of Syria and Iraq. Even though I've seen images before, the horror of it all begins to seep through the car windows into my consciousness.

One fleeting image sticks with me. It's a father carrying a toddler and holding the hand of another on the side of the road and we wiz pass.

Two hours later we're on the outskirts of Skopje. My Peace Corps friends drop me off at a bus stop to get to my home. With back-pack and box of wine, I look like an American Baba.

Here comes the bus. It's #5 just as I expected, but with an added A. I ignore the A, climb aboard and buy a ticket. We get to the edge of the Center when the bus veers right. Soon I'm in unfamiliar territory.

Suddenly, the bus stops and all the people get off. What to do? I try to ask the driver. He grumbles three, three and points across the 4 lane parkway. I'm not sure what to do other than get to the other side of the road.

It's not easy, but I make it still carrying my box and clutching my bus ticket for a re-entry.

I ask an older woman about getting a #5 bus to my home in the Aerodrom neighborhood. She takes me to a bus shelter about a half a block away. I keep saying - #5 here? And she keeps looking at my ticket.

We are not yet communicating.

She opens her purse and pulls out her ID card pointing to her birth date – 1950. Huh?  And then I get it, sort of. I tell her 1945 for me. Actually, I write it since I can't recall how to say numbers that large. She points to my bus ticket saying, “ne, ne ,ne.” Finally, I figure it out. She's been trying to tell me that seniors ride free on Fridays.

We're communicating.

Suddenly, a #50 bus swooshes to a stop in front of us. She pushes me forward. I'm thinking it's not #5 or any number that I've taken before, but I'm in her hands, almost literally.

She insists that I take one of the last seats and finds a place for my box which has begun to feel awkward. Others look at us with curiosity. I try to remind myself that I'm on an adventure.

After a few stops, we get off. I think we're at a mega stop where many buses crisscross. Sure enough, here comes #5 without an A. The woman once again finds me a seat and a place for my box.  

The man next to me wonders who I am. She tells him I'm American and lots of other stuff that I don't understand. Maybe she's telling him about me buying an unnecessary ticket.  A young woman stands in front of us. She's smiling. I ask her to express my appreciation to the woman who has been so helpful. Others turn to see what's going on. Strangers are becoming friendlier. Questioning stares become gentle smiles. It's kind of amazing.

I step off the bus with farewell greetings, lots of smiles and great feelings. At home, I brim over with thoughts of my day. I'm thinking about kindness - How it works and what it does. I'm glad kindness lives on, maybe forever....
Across from my balcony,  a rainbow spreads across the sky

Sunday, June 21

Macedonian Legends

I'm in historic Dorjan in southern Macedonia at a Peace Corps language camp. We're here to learn more Macedonian and soak in the culture of this fascinating country.  

Our location is Lake Dorjan. People have lived here since prehistoric times.  Even the Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote about the Paeonians who were fishermen and lived in settlements accessible only by boat.

During a break from Macedonian classes, I join a group who are searching out ancient ruins amidst the modern building of this place. We walk along the rim of the Lake. 

In the far distance are mountains and the shore of Greece. If I was strong enough swimmer, I might be able to swim to Greece. Imagine that.  The lake is round in shape formed by powerful tectonic movement under the earth's crust. It's maximum depth is only 10 meters keeping the waters warm.

It's known for abundant algae that not only feed an abundance of fish, but whose mud is said to have curative powers. People come to cover their bodies with the mud, bake in the sun and realize relief from aches and pains of modern life. 

Does it work? People swear by it.  

I'm learning that there are many truths tempting belief.  Here's another.  It's the legend of how the lake was formed.    

Once there was a young woman named Dojrana. Everyday she went to draw water from the powerful springs near her village. Like everyone she knew that the springs had to be resealed after use to prevent flooding.

As she was filling her jugs, suddenly her lover appeared having returned from battle. She rushed to embrace him and in their passion retired to the village.

Of course, the springs kept flowing and the result of their love and deep, though mindless,  passion is what we now call Lake Dojran. 

We cross a road and begin climbing steps up a hillside. I notice that they're made of thick slabs of stone. Each one is cut into the hillside. Some are broken or slanted to the side. It's probably caused by that tectonic movement or centuries of use. My brother, Warren, who undertook a similar project on a hillside of his home in Connecticut, would appreciate the work which has endured so long.  

At the top is a church built in 1874 and named for Saint Ilija. The yard thick walls show faint evidence of frescoes. It must have been a beautiful church.

I say "must have been" because the church was bombarded during WWI.  The walls stood firm, but the dome was destroyed. It was rebuilt only to have it destroyed again by the warfare of WWII.  Macedonia has often been in the cross-hairs of bloodshed.  For decades the church stood broken and open to the elements.

Then villagers began to notice something strange. On Saint Ilija's feast day in August, a drowning would always seem to occur. Our guide, who tells us this story, swears it is true since both his grandmother and mother told it to him.

Strange as it sounds, these yearly drownings continued.  "No one knew what to think about this," says the man, "until an old Baba had a dream."

Her dream warned that until the dome was rebuilt drownings would continue. People heeded the warning and in 1992, the dome was finally restored.

No one has drowned on Saint Ilija's feast day since then,” swears our guide. 

I couldn't help but notice that 1992 is about the same time when Soviet influence collapsed and religion could once again be openly practiced. 

Coincidence? Connection? Causality? Who knows? With legends, truth is in the eye of the beholder.   

Further at the top of the hill is an ancient clock tower. Exact date of its construction is unknown, but it's likely to be from the late 1300s. At that time, a great Ottoman general, Evrenos, was sweeping through Macedonia consolidating the lands of the empire.

As legend has it, he came upon Lake Dojran. Fortunately, it was frozen solid. He was able to lead his army across the ice without any loss of life. To commemorate the safe passage, the clock tower was built on the highest hill. Of course, it also served as lookout and symbol of conquest.

Our walk is all down hill now. Instead of the stairs, we walk along winding roads – another legacy from Ottoman times. They apparently preferred winding paths to the straight broader roads of the lower Macedonian village.

My day concludes with a most unusual movie - Whose Is This Song? Check it out.

Adela Peeva is the film's maker and a kind of social archaeologist. She follows the history and national ownership of a traditional song. 

You Tube says in an introduction:

“In her search for the true origins of a haunting melody, the filmmaker travels to Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia, Serbia and Bulgaria. The trip is filled with humor, suspense, tragedy and surprise as each country's citizens passionately claim the song to be their own and can even furnish elaborate histories for its origins.

Watch with a few friends and it's bound to open a lively discussion. Enjoy.